Back in school I remember learning about the history of rock ‘n’ roll in music class. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and so forth, were all singled-out for examination and discussion of their influences and continued influence. Despite learning of rock’s origins in rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and country, I never once heard the name Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In the scheme and scope of music history, the omission of a single name doesn’t seem that big a deal – not everyone can make the history books, not every little influence can be stated and recorded – but when the person who owned that name influenced so many of the great popularisers and influencers of rock ‘n’ roll – Presley, Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash among them – that omission feels quite egregious.
Much has been made of rock music’s roots in the “black” genres of blues and jazz, and the whitewashing of the music and image that accompanied its rise in popularity. Certainly there are many black men who never received their full due at the time – if at all – thanks to their race and the vagaries of culture contingency, but some of these men did receive nods in the textbooks of later generations. Listening to Tharpe’s music, the full spectrum of rock’s precursor-genres are there to be heard in one performance, so why was her name missing from my musical education? Was it because she was a woman, and a black-woman at that?
Perhaps I hadn’t heard of Tharpe because I’m an Australian, and I was educated in Australia, with all of this happening decades before my time. But even so, in a class that covered the development of music from Classical through to Thrash-Metal, it seems to me that room could have been made for Tharpe in the curriculum. I literally only discovered Tharpe – quite by chance, at that – today, and hearing her music, and reading about her, was a revelation – this is exactly why I embarked on Women-Who-Rocktober, because the role of women in rock is so often overlooked, or their impact minimised, that they become virtually invisible, or become morphed in the public-eye into caricatures – or mere objects of curiosity – that somehow don’t deserve respect or serious consideration. These outcomes do neither us – the listeners – or them – the artists – any favours.
If you are still reading this, I thank you for bearing with me while I ranted away, saying little directly about today’s featured performer. Sister Rosetta Tharpe started her musical career performing spiritual and gospel songs, doing much to popularise that genre, but she wasn’t content performing just to the religious crowds, taking her performances into the secular spaces of nightclubs and concert halls. This was a move that shocked many with a conservative bent, but Tharpe further pushed against taboos by playing the electric guitar in public – something that wasn’t considered acceptable behaviour from a lady.
If there is any doubt as to why Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of the Women-Who-Rocktober, I would implore you investigate her and her music further, as her strong vocals, evocative playing style, commanding stage presence, are each strong justifications, which is to say nothing of her influential role in rock-history and her tendency to smash gender expectations during a very conservative time in our history.