Saturday, March 19, 2011

Any Womans Blues #6 – Sister Rosetta Tharpe

A happy Saturday to you!  Although I’m way behind time,  I’m happy to be back on track with the Any Woman’s Blues series.  Things have been hectic here around Robert Frost’s Banjo central as yours truly is now expanding my guitar teaching practice to the town of McCall—which essentially is making me into a commuter & making for a long day in the middle of the week.  Still getting used to this schedule!

Today’s artist is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a truly great singer & guitar player.  But as we enjoy her music, it will also be interesting to consider the concept of musical genre, since that was a vexed question in Tharpe’s career.  On the one hand, Sister Rosetta Tharpe became a big star singing gospel music; on the other hand, she also performed blues & jazz with the likes of Count Basie & Cab Calloway, & sang & played in nightclubs.  At points in Tharpe’s career, this crossover hurt her popularity with her gospel fanbase—after all, blues has been characterized as “the devil’s music.”

Rosetta Tharpe was born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in a town called Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  Her mother was also a musician, as well as a preacher, & young Rosetta was a prodigy: she was performing on guitar at age four!  When her family moved to Chicago in the 1920s she was exposed to the sounds of blues & jazz, & began to incorporate them in her playing.

Throughout the 1930s & 40s, Tharpe’s star shown brightly—in fact she was one of two gospel artists allowed to make V-discs for the overseas troops during World War II.  Her popularity continued with thru the 1940s, & she had a big hit in “Up Above My Head,” which she recorded with Marie Knight.  However, in the early 1950s, Tharpe & Knight recorded some straight ahead blues sides, & there was a backlash from the gospel fans—neither regained their popularity after this, & Tharpe spent quite a bit of time touring in Europe.  In fact the first video, which shows her performing the classic blues “Trouble in Mind,” is from the "American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan,"  a show that toured the UK in 1964.  Tharpe was part of a true all star roster with Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, among others.

Early in her career, Tharpe is usually pictured playing a National Triolian (a resonator guitar
see pic at top of post), but she took up the electric & is playing a Gibson SG in both of these videos.  In addition to her place as a great performer of both gospel & blues, Tharpe is also seen as a pioneer of rock & roll.  Tho she died in relative obscurity in 1970 & was buried in an unmarked grave, her reputation has grown again.  A number of musicians—from Little Richard to Johnny Cash—have acknowledged her influence, & she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007.  A fund raising 2008 concert made it possible for a marker to be placed on her grave in Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetary.  In addition, January 11 is now officially Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Pennsylvania.

Hope you enjoy the music of this dynamic performer!

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