Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Beams of Heaven + Ain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down
Both available on The Original Soul Sister.

For your reading pleasure: Shout, Sister, Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Update 2/8/09: Tharpe has a grave marker now! Long overdue but better late than….

I came from a talk at USC on Friday given by one of my favorite music scholars, Gayle Wald of George Washington Univ. Wald was there to talk about her new book, a biography of gospel/blues/rock n’ roll/R&B great Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

A gospel powerhouse (overshadowed by Mahalia Jackson) and rock n’ roll pioneer (“borrowed from” by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry), Tharpe transcended easy genre categorizations; perhaps one reason why her legacy hasn’t been as widely recognized or cherished as other contemporaries. I think she’s a fascinating icon of cultural liminality – someone who never fit cleanly in any one category and as a result, was often too ahead of their time to earn the recognition that, in hindsight, we pay people like her, Betty Davis, Joe Bataan, etc. During the talk, Eric Weisbard suggested during the Q&A that perhaps Tharpe could be better understood as a pioneering pop star – not in terms of her musical sound but because she was so literate in different musical styles and this helped propel her to superstardom in both the U.S. and Europe. (Wald talked about Tharpe’s third wedding, a huge public event in Washington D.C., held at a baseball stadium. She was doing arena rock before the term became known!)

There were some interesting parallels between her life and that of blues giant Bessie Smith: both were these larger-than-life musical figures, Black women (and bisexual) who ended up being buried in Philadelphia, in an unmarked grave. Wald is starting to organize a campaign to buy a gravestone for Tharpe; if you’re interested in contributing, go here. (See above)

Of the two songs I included, both are available on one of the recent boxsets that have been devoted to Tharpe. One of the songs is “Beams of Heaven,” a song that also features Tharpe’s long-time musical partner Marie Knight (and Wald selected this as as one of her two favorite Tharpe songs). As for the other…I figure the title is self-explanatory, a statement on the power of Tharpe’s presence and legacy. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

For a great bonus, check out this 1960s video of Tharpe performing “Up Above My Head” on a gospel t.v. show. It’s one of the few surviving films of her performing. Dig that guitar solo in the middle! You can see how striking a performer she was, especially in an era where most Black women were seen as torch singers or maybe pianists…here stands Tharpe with an electric guitar, with a raspy, piercing voice, perfectly comfortable seizing center stage.