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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The Runaways Planted a Cherry Bomb in the Rock Industry

The Runaways

The Runaways in the 1970s.

The Runaways were one of the first all-female rock bands in the 1970s. They recorded and performed from 1975 to 1979. The band was formed in 1975 by Joan Jett and Sandy West (rhythm guitarist/songwriter and drummer, respectively) with the help of producer Kim Fowley. After several arrangements of members, the “original” five were completed by Lita Ford on lead guitar, Cherie Currie on vocals and Jackie Fox on bass.

Best known for their single, “Cherry Bomb,” The Runaways were not well-known in the United States during the time that they were active, achieving greater success in Japan due to that single and a successful 1977 tour.

“Cherry Bomb,” inspired by Currie’s “cherry-blonde looks and name,” was written on the fly at her audition to be the lead singer of the band after she had shown up planning to sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Combined with Currie’s choice to don a pink coset she bought from a small lingerie shop, the success of the song impounded as Currie’s sexual appearance added to her stage presence, increasing the appeal of the song to their audiences. The song became the Runaway’s anthem and fight song, and by blatantly using Currie’s sexuality and sexual appeal, they inspired many people to divert from societal expectations and become more daring in their dress and expression.1

In an interview for a 2010 issue of Goldmine magazine, Currie said that she is “proud of what The Runaways did [. . .] That we went from just kids in the Valley – and Huntington Beach and Long Beach – to following our dreams and standing up there for the rights of girls and women everywhere, that [showed that] hey, we can do this and we can do it as well as [men] can.”

Shortly after their tour of Japan came to a close before 1978, the band’s lineup as followers commonly know it disbanded with Currie leaving. Throughout the band’s existence, the group has had five different bassists (Micki Steele, Peggy Foster, Jackie Fox, Vicki Blue and Laurie McAllister). Three members remained relatively unchanged: Joan Jett on vocals and guitar, Lita Ford on guitar and Sandy West on drums. The “original five” appear on their first three albums together, and for the final two, West, Blue, Ford and Jett performed as a quartet. Due to disagreements over which direction the band should go in musically, the band split up in 1979.

After their breakup, each member went on to pursue their own projects. Joan Jett went on to found Blackheart Records, through which she wrote and performed music as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as well as helping other artists with furthering their work. Currie is under contract on Jett’s Blackhearts label and spends the majority of her time chainsaw carving after spending years as a drug counselor for addicted and at-risk teens. Ford and West worked on music together for a time that did not come to much fruition and are now involved with their own projects.

The Runaways were important to the rock genre because they were one of the pioneering all-female groups in the 1970s. Continuing in the vein of all-female musical acts prior to the 1970s, The Runaways trod into the unfamiliar territory of the male-dominated rock genre, using their sexuality as a mode for making their music accessible and appearing “less threatening” to male listeners as they sang songs about female liberation and rebellion to the pulse of heavy rock. The Runaways were a truly subversive, producing music that fit into an already rebellious genre, they achieved international success in a field that was not immediately welcoming to them while deconstructing the stereotypes the rock music industry had for women breaking into the genre.

Bibliography

1. Lindblad, Peter. “The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’ gets a chainsaw.” Goldmine (10552685) 36, no. 8 (April 9, 2010): 44-46. Music Index, EBSCOhost(accessed April 21, 2015).

2. The Runaways. Cherry Bomb: Live in Japan. Concert excerpt, Japan 1977.