Posts Tagged Rosetta Tharpe

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.

A Biographical Timeline of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Looking to learn a little more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe before seeing Marie and Rosetta? Here is brief timeline of the life and music of this trailblazing and and influential artist! Marie and Rosetta is on stage Nov 23-Dec 30. Buy Tickets Here!

A Biographical Timeline of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Researched and Compiled by Morgan Holmes, Marie and Rosetta Dramaturg

The Early Years

1915 Rosetta Atkins is born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20. Soon after, mother and evangelist preacher Katie Bell Nubin separates from her husband and relocates Rosetta to Chicago.

1920s-30s Rosetta performs with Katie Bell at Fortieth Street Church of God in Christ. The duo tour Chicago’s Maxwell Street market and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) circuit of the South. Her acclaim as a gospel singer and guitar player grows.

Jamecia Bennett* as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

1934 Marries COGIC preacher Thomas Tharpe.

1938 Joins revue cast at the Cotton Club and records her first Decca record, “Rock Me.” Throughout the late 30s and 40s she tours Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, Cafe Society in New York and the Grand Ole Opry. She befriends and performs with Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and the like!

1942 Records Victory(V)-discs and performs for African-American troops during WWII.

1943 Divorces Tharpe. Marries Foch P. Allen.

The Middle Years

1944 Releases “Strange Things Happening Every Day” with Decca, reaching #2 on the “race records” chart.

Rajané Katurah Brown as Marie Knight, Jamecia Bennett* as Sister Rosetta.

1946 After a concert at Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom, where gospel singer Mahalia Jackson invited up-and-comer Marie Knight on stage, Tharpe convinces Knight to join her act.

1947-1951 Divorces Allen. Tharpe and Knight tour and record several hits. During this period of touring, Knight’s two children die in a house fire. In 1951, the duet part ways.

1951 In a publicity stunt, Tharpe stages a wedding at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. to Russell Morrison. Knight is her maid of honor, and the Rosettes, a group of back-up singers formed by Rosetta in 1949, serve as bridesmaids. Over 20,000 paying fans are in attendance. After her vows, she plays a concert on electric guitar in her wedding dress. Decca live records the ceremony and concert, then releases it as an album.

The Later Years

1957 Tharpe and Morrison travel Great Britain and Europe at the height of the British blues revival.

1964 She books the Folk, Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in England, and performs in an abandoned railroad station for a live audience and nationwide TV broadcast. LINK.

1968 Katie Bell dies in Philadelphia. Tharpe receives her only Grammy nomination for the 1968 LP Precious Memories.

1973 Tharpe dies on October 9 in Philadelphia, following a stroke, where she is laid to rest in an unmarked grave. Knight performs at her funeral.

A Rebirth of Interest

2007 Writer Gayle Wald’s biography, SHOUT SISTER SHOUT, The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trail Blazer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, kicks off a renewed period of interest in Tharpe’s life and music.

2011 A historical marker is added to Tharpe’s Philadelphia house. Filmmaker Mick Csaky produces the documentary The Godmother of Rock & Roll.

2018 Tharpe is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame under its “Early Influence” award.

 

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.