Rich, Famous, and Loved by Her Fans: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe seems to be the unsung hero of Rock and Roll. While sadly forgotten today, she served as a great musical influence to many great names we now know and love, such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In a few days, she will finally claim her rightful place among the greats in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Born in rural Arkansas in 1915, Rosetta was exposed to music from the outset of life. Little is known about her father other than that he was an amazing singer, which may be where Rosetta’s phenomenal pipes came from. Her mother was a devout Christian who would sit out and play on the guitar or tambourine, singing and playing for people and encouraging them to convert and see the wonder of Jesus. This is where Rosetta learned to play and to love religion.

At the age of six, Rosetta’s mother left her husband, taking her child North to Chicago where they joined Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ. Not only did the move expose the young girl to the urban music scene of jazz and blues, but the congregation gave her a stage to perform on. She played and sang for the congregation, quickly becoming a sensational musician and show-woman. Over time, she became a famous church performer, her mother taking around to different cities and congregations, building her name and reputation. In the 1930s, the pair moved to New York City and Rosetta entered the world of commercial music.

At first, she lost the devotion of churches because of her definitely-not-about-God singing in nightclubs and her questionable song productions after signing with Decca Records in 1938. Her first major hit was the single, “Rock Me,” which pushed the boundaries of spiritual music, her deep growl asking to be “rocked” insinuating something a little different than the religious meaning.

Under a contractual obligation to sing whatever the label wanted her to sing, Rosetta released the song, “Tall Skinny Papa”–an undeniably raunchy lyric–and shortly after returned to singing gospel songs, the music she truly loved. Soon, the church liked her again, as did everyone else. By the age of 25, she was rated as among the finest musicians of the day.

Rosetta was loved for a variety of reasons. She was an amazing performer, putting her heart and soul into her performances, singing not simply to the people, but to the Lord himself. A clergyman from one of the churches she performed at said that her gospel songs often spoke of suffering, but her singing expressed a freedom which awoke the congregations and revived the people.

Her gorgeous voice and unique, lively plucking style on the electric guitar, paired with her religious zeal made Sister Rosetta Tharpe gospel’s first superstar. As mentioned before, she was incredibly influential to many of the great rock and roll artists, so why is she only being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now? She was nominated for the first time in 2018 and will be inducted posthumously on May 5th. Why is it that she has been more or less forgotten up until now? What issues are at play here?

Let’s listen to some more of good ol’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Bibliography:

  1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe-Documentary 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_n0vkzc8PU.
  2. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, https://www.rockhall.com/nominee/sister-rosetta-tharpe.
  3. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/world-cafe/2018/04/12/601808069/sister-rosetta-tharpe-gets-her-day-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame.

Mahalia Jackson, Developing Hybridity, and the Inescapable Political Machine

Mahalia Jackson (from the Jimmy Haynes collection at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

If I’ve learned anything from the past few years of music history courses, it’s that music of all kinds has a complicated and intertwining history. Music doesn’t exist in a bubble, and often, the development of assumed distinct musical genres depended on contemporaneous cultural and musical influences. Rock and Roll is no exception to this statement. In fact, this 1969 article from the Chicago Defender argues that Rock and Roll owes many of its musical traits from the Gospel genre. Despite the apparent disparity between Gospel and Rock and Roll, Earl Calloway, the article’s author, argues that the chord progressions and “uninhibited style of singing” found in rock music are derived directly from gospel music sung in church. Mahalia Jackson, who Calloway mentions later in the article as one of the first Gospel singers to break into pop culture, is a perfect example of this hybridity. In fact, Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Rock stars like Little Richard count her among their major influences and the syncopation that can be heard in songs like ““Move On Up a Little Higher,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” served not only to popularize Gospel music (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” reached the top 100 on the Pop charts), but as a foundation for later rock idioms. Take a listen to “Move on Up a Little Higher” and see if you can hear some Rock and Roll:

Article from Chicago Defender

In listening to Jackson’s recording, however, it is also evident that the Gospel style she used didn’t develop in a vacuum. Thomas Dorsey, who some (like Richard Crawford in his book American Musical Life) identify as one of the founding forces in Gospel Music worked and toured with Mahalia Jackson to develop the Gospel Sound. What is impossible to ignore in these recordings is the similarity it has to earlier Blues traditions. Mahalia Jackson drew inspiration for her vocal technique from the likes of  Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. However, instead of traditional Blues topics for her songs, she sang sacred music. Mahalia Jackson demonstrates the increasing readiness of popular music in the 20th century to change and rely on the music that came before it while influencing the music that would come later. While Gospel certainly was and is a distinct tradition from Blues or Rock and Roll, the interaction between these genres cannot be denied.

While the article from the Chicago Defender and the photograph of Jackson now housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame demonstrate the complicated history of musical development and transmission, they fail to acknowledge another fundamental part of music: politics. Musicologists and musicians alike, myself included, sometimes like to think of music as apolitical. I find it all too easy to hide behind theoretical analysis and stark historical facts when considering the development of musical genres. To do so, however, is to help erase and negate narratives of privilege and oppression that infected all aspects of history, including our beloved music.  Mahalia Jackson’s recordings and life as a whole serve as an example of how music works as part of an inescapable political system. Her music was an influential part of the Civil Rights movement. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the Civil Rights campaign and even sang at the 1963 March on Washington. By the very value of her identity (being a black woman in the 1960s), she and her music had no choice but to be deeply embedded in the social struggles of the 1960s. Click the play icon below to listen to this interview where Jackson speaks about her struggle to maintain Dr. King’s policy of nonviolence when confronted with egregious acts of racism throughout her career and in her personal life.

As interesting as Mahalia Jackson’s involvement with the developing hybridity of popular music in the 1960s is, equally important are her efforts to mobilize music as a political tool.

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Henry Pleasants, et al. “Jackson, Mahalia.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed October 17, 2017http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2249902.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Mahalia Jackson.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/mahalia-jackson.

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Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken

Bach and Handel had the same eye doctor (who botched both their surgeries). Brahms went to a tavern called The Red Hedgehog every day. Debussy loved cats.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that the musicians we worship did not just compose, play, or sing. They were just like us. They had lives, they had other interests, and, in Mahalia Jackson’s case, they had fried chicken.

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Chicago Defender, October 31, 1970.

In 1968, Jackson, still at the height of her singing fame, started a fried chicken chain in Chicago, meant to be the black counterpart to country comedian Minnie Pearl’s own chain as well as a competitor to Colonel Sanders’s rapidly expanding Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though we now claim Jackson as part of our shared American musical heritage, the intended audience for this chain implies a more limited role for Gospel music in the 1960s. As an article in the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender noted, the chain was “black-owned, managed and staffed and is hiring in the communities in which it operates.”

In this way, the chain was most definitely a product of the 1960s. In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, less than 15 years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools to be illegal, integration was still in progress. Black and white restaurants and neighborhoods, though not legally segregated, existed (and, in fact, still exist today).

In the end, even with her name, fame, and star power, the restaurant chain was a bust. Both Minnie Pearl’s and Mahalia Jackson’s stores went out of business within a few years. A final restaurant bearing her name (Mayo’s Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken in Nashville) closed in 2008.

I don’t blame Richard Crawford for not including this story in our textbook, “American Musical Life.” There’s only so much you can include, and, however much I might like to say otherwise, knowledge of Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken is not essential to understand Gospel music. But stories like this one put history in context and show the humanity and depth of musicians. They are people, just like us.

Go grab some fried chicken and enjoy a performance by the Queen of Gospel.


“2d Mahalia Jackson Chicken Shack Opens.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), Oct 31, 1970. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493558307?accountid=351.

Miller, Adrian. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press. 2013.

“Precious Lord Take my Hand”: from Selma to the Grammy Awards

In Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma”, poetic license is taken in depicting the role gospel singer Mahalia Jackson played in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. During a moment of doubt, Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) phones Jackson (portrayed by R&B singer Ledisi) and asks her to share “the Lord’s voice” with him. She answers by singing the immortal gospel classic, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”. This song was a standard at prayer meetings and Civil Rights marches, and was even performed by Jackson at King’s funeral. It was her showstopper, and the song that was requested the most from her by both King and her audiences worldwide.

At the 57th Annual Grammy Awards on February 8th, 2015, the song was performed as a prelude to a “Selma tribute”, which featured R&B artist John Legend and rapper Common performing their Academy Award Winning Song from the film titled “Glory”. However, the song was performed not by Ledisi but by the undisputed modern queen of R&B: the one and only Beyoncé.

This inspiring and powerful performance elicited wide acclaim, though some were quick to point out that a true tribute would have featured Ledisi (who was in attendance), rather than Queen Bey. Criticism escalated when it became apparent that Beyoncé herself had approached Legend and Common about performing the song, as it wasn’t originally planned to be part of the show. However, amid the accusations of self-promotion and concerns over unfair exclusion, the opportunity for an discussion regarding style was unfortunately missed.

On one hand it is easy to criticize Beyoncé’s performance if we are comparing to the historical standard set by Jackson. It is fair to say that Ledisi followed this standard in preparing for “Selma”, mimicking some of Jackson’s techniques and melodic alterations. (The album the below performance is taken from is available in the St.Olaf Music Library, call number M2198.J3 M3 [v.1])

For live video performances by Jackson, check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0a8RNdnhNohttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=as1rsZenwNc

Whereas Jackson displays virtuosity in the emotional range of her voice, Beyoncé relies more on virtuosic vocal runs more akin to flashy pop music than to a traditional gospel style. The spiritual component of Jackson’s version is amplified by the seemingly extemporaneous approach to the melody by Jackson and the fluid approach to the harmonic changes by her pianist and organist. Contrastingly, aspects of Beyoncé’s version seem meticulously rehearsed, from the timing her background singers movements to her rather parodic head movements at about 2:10.

But I think the biggest discrepancy between Jackson and Beyoncé’s performance is a matter of visual and emotional, rather than musical, aesthetics. In the live performances posted above, Jackson stands alone in the middle of the barren stage, barely moving but to look up to the sky. As the text suggests, she is powerless and none but God can help her in her time of trial. Beyoncé could not be more different, not only in complete control of her own body but seemingly in control of the 12 men behind her. She even cuts off the organ at the end! While this powerful depiction of an African-American woman is inspiring, it undeniably draws away from the meaning of the song, especially in conjunction with the accusation that this was more promotional stunt than impassioned performance. When Jackson performed, she would humbly tell the audience “I’m so happy for the way you are receiving me. I love applause. But you know I’m a gospel singer and I like to hear a few ‘amens’. ” [1]

That isn’t to say that any of this is bad, or that Ledisi would have performed any better or differently than Beyoncé. No one can or should deny how impressive and moving this performance is. Ledisi herself defended Beyoncé better than anyone.

“The song, ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord,’ has been going on forever. It started with the queen, Mahalia. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (who sang the song at Jackson’s funeral, in 1972). Then I was able to portray and sing my version of the song. And now we have Beyonce. I’m a part of history. Look at it like that, instead of looking at it as a negative. To me it’s a great, great honor to be a part of a legacy of a great song, by Thomas Dorsey.” [2]

To this point, performances by Franklin and Whitney Houston are much more radical and pop-infused than those of Jackson and Ledisi, which arguably stay truer to recorded performances by Dorsey. But perhaps this development is a good thing. The ability of musicians (and more importantly, African-American women) to freely influence this song is a great thing, and stands for what Jackson herself fought and sang for. Dr.Benjamin Mays elegy for Jackson said it best:

“One can only hope that this great and good woman will never die but that her life will inspire so many young people that she will live on throughout eternity. In this way she will become immortal.” [3]

He may as well have been speaking of the song too.


 

 

[1] Duckett, Alfred. “Mahalia Jackson Like Applause (Beg Pardon) Amens at Concerts.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jun 01, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492918933?accountid=351.

[2] Fensterstock, Allison. “Grammys 2015: Beyonce takes on Mahalia Jackson, and Ledisi has a perfect response.” The Times-Picayune, Feb 08, 2015. http://www.nola.com/music/index.ssf/2015/02/grammys_2015_beyonce_takes_on.html

[3] Mays, Benjamin E. “Reminiscing about Mahalia Jackson.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), Feb 26, 1972. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493504320?accountid=351.