What did Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley all have in common? They shared the same idol: a queer black woman from Arkansas who knew her way around the electric guitar—Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
I first discovered Rosetta, the “godmother of rock n’ roll,” last winter when Youtube recommended her song “Didn’t It Rain” to me. The video’s thumbnail showed her playing a Gibson electric guitar in a large fur coat, big pearl earrings and heels, so of course, I had to click.
Holy hell, she was good and the fact that she succeeded despite being a black woman within a male-dominated industry in the segregated South is testament to her exceptional talent.
When playing the guitar was considered a masculine talent and women guitarists were rare, Rosetta played anyway, embracing and wearing full feminine attire. When allowing a black woman equal access to restaurants and hotels was taboo or even illegal, Rosetta toured anyway, sleeping on buses and entering through the back of buildings.
Born to a family of religious singers and cotton pickers in 1915, Tharpe took up the guitar at four years old and by 1938, made a name for herself by combining Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and gospel. She also shocked many by intertwining secular themes into gospel music.
Her distinct sound singlehandedly set the foundation for rock n’ roll. In fact, some argue that her most well-known record, “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” was one of the first rock n’ roll recordings in history.
Given these facts, it’s disgraceful her name remains absent from the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but it is not hard to figure out why. We know all too well that racism, sexism and homophobia persist.
So what can we do? Well, there is good news: she has finally been nominated. According to fan votes, she’s currently in 16th place out of 19—Bon Jovi (meh) sits at first. We are each given one vote per day at http://www.rockhall.com/fan-vote/2018-fan-vote.
But Hall of Fame aside, here is what I ask: go to Youtube and experience Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Watch beads of sweat drip down her forehead during “This Train” as she sings, “This train, you know, don’t fit no transportation / no Jim Crow and no discrimination / This train is bound for glory.”
Or watch her confidently cover “Down by the Riverside” in front of a choir of men, singing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield / Down by the riverside / I’m gonna study, study, war no more.”
Play at least one song and play it loud. Her powerful, influential voice unifies all of us, and it’s a grave sin to let it go silenced any longer.
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