Health Care -- Moving Forward

Sister Rosetta Thorpe

By Jonathan B. Wight

Some areas of my ignorance are immense and come around to blindside me. One such event occurred this weekend when I stumbled across a video of Sister Rosetta Thorpe, singing “Didn’t It Rain,” at a concert in England in 1964.

Sister rosetta tharpeOh my gosh!  What a soul-bender! This woman can sing! This woman can rip the guitar! This woman has a charismatic presence that can be described as magno-electric!  Where has she been my whole life?

It turns out that others have had similar epiphanies.  Jerry Lee Lewis said:

“Say man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll.” I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s ... shakin’ man ... She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, “Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

A later biographer wrote:

“I never imagined that a woman from the church could be ripping it up on a Gibson like that….I wondered why I hadn’t heard of her.”

Sister Rosetta Thorpe (1915-1973) was born in Arkansas but her mother moved her to Chicago when she was a young girl, and the two toured as performers at evangelical churches across the South. Later they moved to New York and then Philadelphia, touring widely in Europe. Her 1938 record “Rock Me” and other works were avidly loved by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.

I can easily see why: Thorpe rocks, bringing verve and joyful audacity to her guitar picking, and her voice is confident, strong, and true. You feel better having listened to her uplifting voice and being in the presence of her personna. 

Although her styles could be labeled gospel and blues, she is clearly a forerunner and inspirer for rock and roll.  Sad to say, she is not listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  That’s a huge omission!

Women—and people of color—may not get the credit they deserve for starting the music revolution that led to Elvis, the Beatles, and other white guy bands. 

Perhaps—with the publication of Gayle F. Wald’s biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (2005) and the BBC documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll in 2011her time will come.

Before signing off, listen to this wonderful rendition of “Down by the Riverside” and the rollicking “Ninety Nine and a Half Won’t Do” sung by Tharpe and her mother.

[Update:  NPR has a story this morning about the movie "Rumble" that will open in a few weeks, about the role Native Americans played in the rock movement.]


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