Tickets: 651.291.7005

Godly vs. Worldly: the competing forces of Sister Rosetta’s musical rise

GODLY VS. WORLDLY:

THE COMPETING FORCES OF SISTER ROSETTA’S MUSICAL RISE

by Morgan Holmes, dramaturg for Marie and Rosetta

It’s easy enough to look at Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s life and conclude that her innovative, genre-bending musicianship was “ahead of its time.” How else could such a public and internationally beloved figure wind up buried in an unmarked Philadelphia grave? But – much like our own pop stars who burn brightly, then fizzle out with fans as they experiment with sounds, personas, and public identities (Taylor Swift’s varied success in pop and political crossover, for example) – Tharpe’s career was precisely the product of her time. Throughout her rise, she was activated by and reactive to the sanctity and secularism that marked her world.

THE DELTA BLUES MIGRATE NORTH

The same beat that Black folks dance to on Saturday night is the same beat that they shout to on a Sunday morning” -Reverend Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel

Jamecia Bennett as Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Increased opportunity of industrialization in the north, as well as the promise of better treatment, drew 1.6 million African-Americans north from the 1910s to the Depression, in the first period of black urbanization dubbed the Great Migration. Among the millions, evangelist missionary Katie Bell Nubin left her husband and sharecropper past in rural Arkansas in the early 1920s, to move her daughter, Rosetta, north to Chicago. The migration also brought north the artistry and improvisation of the delta blues, where it coalesced with the call-and-response format of Negro spirituals, birthing gospel. Gospel Chicagoans Mahalia Jackson’s vocal stylings reminiscent of Bessie Smith, and Arizona Juanita Dranes, who used her piano as an extension of her voice rather than its traditional use as an accompaniment to the soloist or choir, influenced Tharpe’s own guitar-picking and singing.

THE CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST’S INFLUENCE

make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise” -Psalm 98:4

Jamecia Bennett as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rajané Katurah Brown as Marie Knight

Sprung from the roots of the Holiness movement, which avowed outward displays of holiness like modest dress, sobriety or “clean living,” and avoiding worldly activities, the Pentacostal denomination Church of God in Christ (COGIC) spread like wildfire across the South, traveling north with the Great Migration. Music as an outward expression of faith was also a tenet of COGIC worship. This tenet influenced the gospel sound – a loud, joyous, testimonial sound. Tharpe began her own career performing at Chicago’s Fortieth Street COGIC and touring COGIC circuit with her mother and first husband, preacher Thomas Tharpe.

 

 

 

SWINGING THE GOSPEL

Even though I was just a child, I knew immediately that this woman was playing a different kind of music. It was gospel, but the way she put it across, in her bluesy-jazzy style, was a real ‘revelation’ […] a real ‘bad’ groove.”

-Singer Etta James, Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America, 1930-1975

By the time blues pianist Thomas A. Dorsey codified the genre through his sheet music publishing company, Tharpe had already begun innovating gospel further. Whether disillusioned from the restrictions of poverty, her abusive first marriage, or the conservative COGIC, she traded the sanctified audience that nurtured her for commercial success on the Harlem club circuit, where she hobnobbed with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and big bands like Cab Calloway’s. Unsurprisingly American pop music’s syncopated groove crept into her gospel, as evidenced by her 1938 Decca hit “Rock Me,” a secular version of Dorsey’s “Hide Me in Thy Bosom.” Swinging the gospel won her a mainstream audience but came with its own restrictions, like singing in low-brow vaudeville, burlesque and minstrel revues at the white-only Cotton Club. At the clubs, the testimonial spirit of gospel was mocked, satirized, and whitewashed in “Saint and Sinner” acts. Yet Tharpe stuck to her faith, walking the ambiguous line between spiritual and secular – sometimes successfully, sometimes at the cost of her career.

Coming Next: Mississippi in 1946: the hazards Sister Rosetta faced traveling in the south.

Marie and Rosetta is on stage now through Dec 30, starring Jamecia Bennett and Rajané Katurah Brown. Tickets available at parksquaretheatre.org or 651.291.7005.

Morgan Holmes is an all-around theatermaker – writing, directing, dramaturging and administrating across the Twin Cities. She is most interested in identity, ritual, intimacy, and internet culture, which she explores as co-creator of Perspectives Theater Company.

    tagline-color

Theatre News for you!

Sign up to get the latest Park Square news