How Sister Rosetta Tharpe Inspired Me To Play Electric Guitar

How Sister Rosetta Tharpe Inspired Me To Play Electric Guitar

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (born March 20, 1915) will soon be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is the godmother of rock & roll, so her induction has been spiritually present for almost 100 years.

She began singing in church at the age of four. Without Sister, Elvis, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and so many more musical idols would have been missing the foundation for their paths as rock & roll stars. I believe Bob Dylan said it best when he said: “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain. She was a big, good-lookin’ woman and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid.”

As a young multi-instrumentalist, I’ve found inspiration from studying her life and her music. Simply seeing a photograph of her with her guitar was enough to make me want to listen to her music and follow her story. I’d like to share just a few reasons I was attracted to her music and legacy.

Cotton Plant, Arkansas, is the birthplace of Sister Rosetta. It’s about two hours from my birthplace of Jackson, Tennessee. Similar to so many musicians from the South, we were both first introduced to music through the church. Gospel music was the first genre that led Sister to not only sing, but to also play guitar.

Yes, we had Hendrix. Sure, there was Lenny Kravitz on the radio, too, but there were very few African American female electric guitarists to be found in mainstream music when I was growing up. So when I decided to take up playing the electric guitar, my idols came from the root, from the beginning. The image of Sister Rosetta Tharpe with her guitar helped to make my dreams seem tangible. Her music has been described as gospel, rhythm and blues, country, big band and finally rock & roll. She was one of the founding rock & roll stars! That taught me that there is no limit to what can be done in the music world, and where you begin is not always where you end up!

Sister Rosetta used her music as a tool. She was one of the first entertainers to travel on a tour bus through the segregated South. Oftentimes, she and her musicians could not enter a restaurant to be served a hot meal. While she could have easily allowed racism to make her bitter and discouraged, she did the exact opposite by inviting white entertainers like the Jordanaires to join her on the road. Through their performances, they rose above the lines that society had drawn for them and used music to heal every community they traveled to.

Even during dark times, it seems she was always focusing on the positive. She was not known as a political figure, but the power of bringing together one community at a time through songs was certainly one of the strongest gifts she shared with the world. It went beyond the shadows of the South, throughout the United States, and even led her to Europe. In today’s political climate, I still look to Sister Rosetta to keep me focused on cultivating healing through music. One small audience, one small community and one simple song at a time. Small multiple moves are favored over great leaps. They mount up and you can go just as far!

Sister Rosetta truly valued family. Her mother, Katie Bell, picked cotton to make ends meet and was a devout Christian who played mandolin and guitar for anyone who would find the time to listen. She noted her daughter’s talent from a very young age and was greatly supportive of her musical career from the start. As Rosetta rose to fame and wealth, she kept her mother by her side until the day she died. Even with the challenges of traveling year after year, she always found a way to put her family first.

In 2016, I was invited by Ann Powers to speak on a panel at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. I had just finished reading Shout, Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald. After the panel, I was surprised that Gayle was in the audience. It was a treat to speak to someone who had studied Sister Rosetta’s life and had dedicated her time to making certain the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe was told.

I found myself performing at World Cafe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. I woke up the day after the performance and went to visit the grave of Sister Rosetta. I felt drawn to take her some clementines and flowers and to see that her grave was kept clean and tidy. The gravestone was fairly new considering she had been gone for several years. Previously, as with many African American trailblazers, she lay in an unmarked grave, until her headstone was finally paid for by fans around 2009.

The epitaph reads: “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”

Memphis singer-songwriter Valerie June seamlessly blends blues, gospel. and folk together with spellbinding songwriting. Her album, The Order of Time, was one of 2017’s most critically acclaimed releases, topping lists for The New York Times, NPR and Rolling Stone, just to name a few. 

NEW YORK – CIRCA 1940: Vocalist/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe poses for a portrait holding a guitar in circa 1940 New York City, New York. (Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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