Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of the links in a long Black chain including gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. This queer badass is often referred to as the founding mother of rock and roll. For a fantastic biography covering her life and career, I would recommend Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Not many people seem to be familiar with her in the way they know other Black musicians of the era, or even their white counterparts. Thankfully, she’s been getting more attention recently. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. There’s also an interesting set of memes about her floating around, which “supports a radical politics of remembering by articulating Tharpe’s erasure from the annals of rock to the ongoing struggles of marginalized black and queer subjects.” 1Gayle Wald (2020) “A queer black woman invented rock-and-roll”: Rosetta Tharpe, memes, and memory practices in the digital age, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1855224 In particular, she’s compared to Janelle Monae and Lizzo as purveyors of black queer creativity in the 21st century.
What’s at stake here are issues of authenticity, belonging, and its relationship to artistic production/consumption. As I mentioned in my previous post about Richard Wright, Black creativity is often boxed in, which is something I’ve experienced from white folks and my own people.
I love Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s voice and the energy of her performances, but her guitar work was what drew me to her. Cross and alternate picking. The warble and twang of her Custom SG. It lends texture to her music, which allows her voice to ride along her strumming. It’s incredible. However, I fell even more in love with her when I discovered that she was one of the earlier guitarists to employ distortion.
Anyone who knows me intimately, knows that I’m a metal head. Have been for as long as I’ve been interested in music. Post. Doom. Sludge. Black. Metal is characterized by, among other things, its distorted guitars. 2Distortion is produced when a gain is added to an audio signal, pushing it beyond its peak. The result is harmonic overtones that creates compression and sustain. This influence can be traced back to rock and blues, generally, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe more specifically.
When I was 12 my parents bought me a cherry red bass guitar. A Dean Edge. I leaned into that identity even more, playing just about everyday after school for three hours or so. I also got to build skill as a guitarist by playing a friend’s 2003 Les Paul Studio. I started a hardcore band and remember getting made fun of by both Black and white kids. For the Black kids, I was playing at white. For the white kids, even those who loved 2002 was another year of rap dominating popular music charts, edging out rock as it had been since the 1980s. For these kids, my love of metal was incomprehensible a signal of my ersatz Blackness. 3These damaging behaviors are absolutely the result of historical ignorance.
To them I was playing white.
This accusation created knots in my identity throughout high school, ones I’m still untying as I move throughout life. Back then, however, I I started believing that my love of any music genre not stereotypically associated with Black people called into question my own Blackness. Its authenticity. It didn’t seem to matter, to me or the other kids, that my taste wasn’t to the exclusion of any other genre. I enjoyed rap, R&B, soul, and jazz. I could play Isley Brothers and Bobby Womack songs on guitar. Still do.
But I fucking love metal. It’s the genre of my goddamn soul.
That’s why winding out about Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s relationship to distortion felt like learning about a hidden piece of ancestral history. It didn’t so much change my relationship to rock and metal as it changed the way those things relate to me. I’m reminded that I am one in a continuing line of Black musicians who play what they feel. In that sense, this post is also dedicated to those folks, whom I also think are indebted to this amazing woman.4Ice-T, Lajon Witherspoon, Chuck D, Howard Jones and so many other Black folks pushing against the notion of what it means to “be Black” as an artist So much of our popular understanding of rock and roll is filtered through specific sources and the figures associated with them (left intentionally unnamed). Somewhere along the way an irony developed: we decided not to listen to these figures, lionizing them instead of the influences to whom they pointed.