No rock and roll expert can disagree with me when I say that there isn’t just one father of the genre. Many claim it was Chuck Berry, while others say it was Buddy Holly. What everyone can agree on is that the genre became established in the fifties, when it was popularized among the youth and started reaching the masses. If you do a quick search on the Internet to trace the origins of this genre, these figures will appear next to the musical influences that helped shape the original and unique sound of this music style. However, little is known about a central character who basically became the first rock star in history. She inspired many of rock's greatest legends, like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Chuck Berry himself, but above all, she changed the course of music forever. This impressive figure was none other than Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Born in 1915, Tharpe was the daughter of two cotton pickers in Arkansas who also sang at the Church of God in Christ, a presbyterian church mainly attended by the African-American community. She was handed a guitar at the age of four, and started singing at the church's services. Soon later, she and her mother went touring with a gospel group, and that's how she found her real passion. Mother and daughter moved to Chicago, where Rosetta continued practicing and performing for many years. However, after a marriage that ended badly, she decided to abandon everything and try her luck in New York City.
By the nineteen thirties, she had already made a name for herself as an important performer in the religious music scene, but people were a little put off by her because she liked playing the guitar herself. At the time, society was still pretty conservative, so the idea of a black woman making a living from her music was scandalous. To make matters worse, she had started playing secular songs, so she felt that she had to move to a more liberal city in order to further her career. Determined to do so, she started playing with the Cotton Club's band. This was a very popular club during the Prohibition era.
This won her many followers who were impressed by the originality of her music and the lyrics she was singing and composing. Although this was during the pre-WWII era, her songs explored subjects that were taboo back then, as well as different ideas about love and sexuality. Her talent opened many doors for her, but it was her knowledge about the music industry, such a male-dominated business, that allowed her to make things work in her favor. She knew that if she wanted to grow as an artist, she couldn’t follow all the rules that society imposed on her as a woman. Instead she went with her gut feeling to be herself: an honest and raw person who said and did whatever she wanted. This didn’t just open more doors for her, it also made her popular with other bands that asked her to collaborate with them. Soon, she was the first black woman to play in an all-white band, touring all over the country with them.
Of course, it might not sound like that big of a deal for us now, but this was the nineteen forties. We’re talking about a time when racism and segregation were still institutionalized, so she had to endure all sorts of injustices and humiliations, like sleeping in buses or eating in restaurants' kitchens because African-Americans weren’t allowed in certain places. However, if you thought this broke her spirit, you'd be very wrong. This only made her more determined to continue performing and changing people’s opinions about race and gender. Her bold lyrics, her unparalleled way of playing the electric guitar, and her voice made her a legend in the US and across the pond with the American troops fighting in Europe during World War II.
Her fame allowed her to explore more sounds and themes in her songs. What started as R&B and gospel, later fused with folk rhythms and country notes, creating a fresh and innovative music style. And in terms of her lyrics, she became even bolder. Although she was famous for being extremely open and honest about herself, her love life was kept a secret from the public. Yet, everyone in the music industry knew all about her affairs with both men and women. That was until she met Marie Knight, another African-American female musician. They collaborated on a record and toured the country together, but more importantly, they were in a public relationship. Obviously, it was a daring and radical statement for the time.
This trailblazing musical duo didn’t last long, and both the collaboration and the relationship ended soon, but Rosetta continued working on her music. By the next decade, she had become so famous that, when she married her manager in a baseball stadium in Washington D.C., about 20,000 fans bought a ticket to witness the marriage. Also, she gave a concert that was recorded and sold as an album that proved to be very successful, but this was already the beginning of the end of her amazing career in the US. With the emergence of young, white rock musicians, who had clearly been inspired by her music, people stopped being interested in a woman who had been around for about twenty years. However, as you might have guessed, this didn’t stop her. She saw in Europe an opportunity to share her talent and music, and kept performing in front of a new generation of fans until her death in 1973.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or the Godmother of Rock, as she’s often called, played a crucial role in the development of rock and roll in terms of sound and lyrics, but she's also an example of rock and roll becoming something beyond mere entertainment. She was the embodiment of rebelliousness, of following your instincts even if they go against society's expectations, and of having a true passion for music and freedom. She might have been forgotten by many, but her voice, heart, and soul can be heard in every rock song by any musician you can think of because without her we might’ve never enjoyed this important musical genre.
If you like music history, don’t miss these: