sat 23/01/2021

The Godmother of Rock'n'Roll, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Godmother of Rock'n'Roll, BBC Four

The Godmother of Rock'n'Roll, BBC Four

Elvis's inspiration was a gospel-singing nun - a forgotten legend remembered

Question: which American star had their third wedding in the Griffith Stadium, Washington in front of more than 25,000 paying fans and recorded the whole thing for release as an album? If you’re wondering how you could have missed hearing about such a quintessential 21st-century publicity stunt it might be because, firstly, this extraordinary event occurred in 1951, and secondly, because the guitar-strumming bisexual bride (who hadn’t even found a groom when the event was arranged) has almost disappeared from the history books.

Today, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is mainly only known to blues and gospel aficionados and a departing generation of African-American church-goers. But in the 1940s and Fifties she was America’s first gospel superstar, as well as being arguably the greatest single influence on the development of early rock’n’roll. Her fans include Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan (who called her “sublime and splendid”), Robert Plant – and the list goes on and on.

Just listen to the guitar solo on “Up Above My Head” (see video below) and you’ll hear why. In a style both finger-pickingly intricate and crudely rock’n’roll, she whizzes up and down the fret board as if she’s going to be late for the next verse, concluding her coruscating performance with a mini Townshend windmilling of the arm (bet that’s where he got it from) after bending the tremolo for the final wavering note.

Watch Sister Rosetta Tharpe play "Up Above My Head"

Was there anything to be read from the fact that she changed a line of “Up Above My Head” from, “I really do believe there’s a heaven somewhere” to “I really do believe there’s a joy somewhere”? Given her confused and confusing relationship with the church, perhaps there is. But Mick Csaky’s film was only a tantalising Wikipedia-like skim through her life and career. Although gripping, due to the still-palpable charisma and talent of its subject matter, it left many such questions both unasked and unanswered.

What we do find out is that Tharpe was born in Arkansas in 1904, she was performing from the age of six, and she had what one friend described amusingly as a “stomp-down Christian mother”. This mother stuck with her for some 40 years, during which she made a shed-load of money, spent it all, and severely tested the patience of her early church-going audience by embracing the often innuendo-laden love and lust songs of the modern secular world.

Because of the shameless open racism of her era, journalists rarely even talked to black musicians, let alone asked them about their lives or what motivated them, so we’ll probably never know the full story of how Tharpe dealt with all these contradictory forces in her life (she had more than one long-term lesbian relationship as well as three troublesome husbands), or what inspired her to inadvertently invent rock’n’roll.

America only woke up to the music Tharpe pioneered when the first generation of white rock’n’rollers started shaking it about and hollering it out. This was politely alluded to by Tharpe’s biographer, Gayle Wald, who invited us to imagine that Presley virtually channelled Tharpe in his early performances: “We just don’t think about a middle-aged black woman behind a young white man.”

This was about the nearest this documentary got to saying that racism was central to the fact that most music fans haven’t heard of Tharpe today (although this is changing – recently her song “What Is the Soul of Man?” was used in an Alfa Romeo TV commercial). It’s also probably why there’s a tragic lack of footage of the woman performing.

So we get to hear eye-witness reports of her on stage as a young girl, but have to make do with film from the late 1960s and early 1970s of her bad-wigged and middle-aged - though, it has to be said, still delivering the goods. One clip showed her arriving by horse and cart at a rain-soaked railway station near Manchester for a Granada TV blues documentary. Appropriately enough she sang “Didn’t It Rain" while the audience, sitting on the opposite platform, watched, captivated. After playing another one of those solos which almost makes you forget to breathe, she quipped, “Pretty good for a woman, ain't it?” - perhaps the greatest understatement in the history of popular music.

She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy

The film ended with the news that in 2009 Tharpe was finally given a proper headstone for her grave, thanks to money raised by a benefit concert. It ain't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but it’s a start, I suppose.

Rock’n’roll as a genre was the result of what now seems like an inevitable melding of transcendent gospel and visceral earthbound blues, but Tharpe was the actual embodiment of that glorious collision. Without her, today’s popular music might have been quite a different thing. Her lifelong friend Roxie Moore said of her, “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy.” How many artists could you say that about today? This documentary is probably as good as it could be, given the dearth of archive material available, and at least it will spread the gospel (and the rock‘n’roll) to a few more open ears. As David Byrne once so memorably sang, “The world moves on a woman’s hips” – Rosetta was that woman.

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Comments

Literally just watched this on BBC4 and really enjoyed it. Had never heard of her! Plenty of questions unanswered and unasked certainly but a terrific document nonetheless. Arguably her music is more listenable today than many greats that came after.

Despite the dearth of surviving footage of Sister Rosetta, this was a really enjoyable documentary about a woman who deserves recognition far beyond gospel and blues circles and those "in the know". Her legacy might have been undermined by the white media back then, but there is no excuse for it now.

"This was about the nearest this documentary got to saying that racism was central to the fact that most music fans haven’t heard of Tharpe today" Sure - like it prevented people from hearing Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles & Ella Fitzgerald.... Something that isn't in dispute is that she was a great performer, and a very rare female guitar pioneer.

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