Rock ‘n’ roll is the preserve of white men, right? Er no, says Sophie Scott.
Recently, my partner was watching a programme on BBC4 about great guitar riffs, and in the opening section there was a cavalcade of famous figures playing the electric guitar. I say figures, I mean men; it was a cavalcade of mostly white men.
Suddenly there was a really brief glimpse of a bit of black and white film of an older, black woman, playing the electric guitar. “Who is that?” I asked. “I want to see a programme about her.”
She was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, someone we should really care about. Because, although our stereotype of an electric guitar player is of a skinny, young (often white) man, she was a major influence on the origins of the electric guitar in rock and pop music.
Electric guitars were invented in 1931. Unlike acoustic guitars, which resonate the body of the guitar to make a sound (which limits how loud they can be), electric ones make a sound when the string vibrations are detected by pickups. To actually turn this into a sound, this signal needs to be amplified, and this electric signal is also very easily modified, added to, or coloured with effects (such as fuzz boxes or wah-wah pedals).
Electric guitars allow for a very wide variety of playing styles, with the strings being hit or picked or rubbed. From the outset, electric guitars were incorporated into the big band sounds of the era, but they also started to be used by people playing evangelistic gospel music, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
A child prodigy, Tharpe was born in 1915 and was singing and playing the acoustic guitar by the age of four. She performed with the Church of God in Christ, a gospel mission which emphasised music and rhythm in services and let women do things like preach, and by the time she was six she and her mother were part of a group of travelling evangelist preachers and singers across the American south.
She was a prodigy, at a time when black female guitarists were rare: they’re not over-represented nowadays, to be honest. And she was one of the first evangelical performers to have crossover appeal, appearing in secular venues such as the Cotton Club.
This is her playing and singing Down by the Riverside – the debt of rock’n’roll to this style of gospel is clear, as is the style of her guitar playing. And she basically invented this style of playing, in which you can more or less hear the ‘building blocks’ of rock’n’roll, as the songwriter Joan Osborne noted.
I played a recording of Sister Rosetta Tharpe to my partner, a very keen guitarist, and without letting him look at the video I asked him what he thought of the playing. It sounds, he said, like someone very influenced by Chuck Berry. Or someone who influenced him. And of course, it’s the latter.
Chuck Berry, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis all acknowledged their debt to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Bob Dylan said that, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain…she was a powerful force of nature, a guitar playing, singing evangelist.” Her biographer Gayle Wald said Tharpe “didn’t just play the guitar, she owned it… turning wood and metal onto something alive yet completely under her control.” (from Shout Sister, Shout)
You can see this effortless expertise at play in the next clip: there was a rise in interest in the blues in the UK in the 1960s and Tharpe toured the UK along with artists like Muddy Waters. This film of her singing and playing on an abandoned railway station outside Manchester is quite extraordinary:
She was 49. I am 49. She’s wearing it bloody well. Tharpe had a stroke in 1970, and died in 1973. Possibly because of the ways that stereotypes work, she kind of fell off the radar. She was buried in an unmarked grave and was largely forgotten when people discussed the historical influences on popular music. You’d hear about Chuck Berry – who was indeed incredibly influential – but not the woman who inspired him.
That started to change and, in 2007, Tharpe was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (Muddy Waters was inducted in 1980, and Chuck Berry in 1985). Her biography was released in 2008 and, in 2011, BBC4 made Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, a title that which seems about right.
As someone says in the (excellent) film says, “We don’t think about the black woman behind the thin white man.” And for too long a time we haven’t. Surely rock ‘n’ roll is too full of machismo to have its historical roots on stage with a six-year-old girl hoofing it with travelling evangelists? Can one woman really have invented rock ‘n’ roll?
Watch Tharpe performing This Train and you can see why Bob Dylan also called her ‘divine’ and ‘sublime’.
She looks so strong and charismatic and she is serving that performance. It must have been really something to see her live. And while we may have all decided to forget her for a few decades, the Godmother of Rock and Roll finally seems be making her way back into the history books, where she assuredly deserves to be.
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I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott