Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Holy Ghost: An Interview with Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe has been described variously as: an outright musical genius; the Original Soul Sister: Grandmother of Rock ‘n Roll; sanctified sinner and (by the man himself) Johnny Cash’s ‘all time favourite singer’.

With a jaunt of the sort that has inspired the Washerman’s Dog , a gait that moves so frequently and so energetically across ‘dividing lines’ that borders are obliterated, Sister Rosetta Tharpe stands at the highest pinnacle of modern American music. She was a gospel singer who played secular blues in the church and a rocking guitarist who always claimed to be serving the Lord. Never mind the mink stoles, pink lipstick and blonde wigs.  She broke every mold, pushed every envelope and horrified church goers and delighted  blues hounds all across the US of A and Europe.

On a recent visit Down Under the Washerman’s Dog caught up with the Sister for a chat.  Resplendent in her king-size suite at the Hyatt 7th Heaven garbed up in a sparkly sequined green night frock,  ghoulish red lipstick and a matching flaming wig, Rosetta seemed relaxed and eager to spill the beans about her life and times.

Washerman’s Dog: Let’s start at the beginning. Where and when were you born?
Sister Rosetta: In a town no bigger than a baby bo weevil, honey.  Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  You can take a guess at what that place was about! I was born in 1915.
WD: So your family were share croppers and worked the cotton fields.
SR: Um hum. That’s about it. Nothing much else us black folks were doin’ besides that. In those days. But my mother worked in the Lord’s field. She was known as a missionary and travelled all through towns in Arkansas and the South.  Shouting for Jesus! Yo hoo! Hallelujah!  I learned to pick the gitar from tagging along with her to tent meetings and church halls. We was sanctified,  and on the road!
WB: So you always wanted to play and sing on the stage?
SR: Honey, I had no idea of stages. It was altars and praising the Lord. But I did like the attention I got when I plucked those strings and sang. And that’s what I did for some years. I got better and better and more Spirit filled over the years and that’s when my mind turned you know to moving beyond the little churches.
WD: When did you start making records for a living, then?
SR: Cain’t rightly remember now, but probably in the late 1930s. I was just about a twenty year old lady. Ooh  I was hungry and someone saw that. I hooked up with all sorts of players. Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman. I signed up a contract with Decca Records and they did well by me. Making my music known to the radio DJs and public.
WD: You were doing secular music with Benny Goodman? In the 1930s?
SR: You know it was all music to me. It all came from the Lord. Singing about my baby is the same as singing about my saviour to me. Love is the key. So yeah I was doing it all. But mainly singing hymns and popular gospel music. You see not many of those white folks who went to the clubs in New York City and Washington DC on Saturday nights had any idea of what us black ones were singing about next door on Sunday morning. I read somewhere that it was me that brought the Negro Sunday morning to the White Saturday night! Ha ha! I suppose that’s the case alright. I came up with Mahalia , and Lordy, she beat the shit out of me with her voice and power.  But I suppose I had her beat to hell on the rocking and rolling!!
WD: She didn’t approve of you?
SR: Oh dear man, that ain’t it. She was a purist you see. Wanted to keep it all serious and a bit solemn. For the church.  And hell, that’s what ‘gospel’ music’s about aint it? Jesus, sinning, forgiveness and heading to heaven! She didn’t disapprove, just didn’t dig my scene. We was good friends and of course by the time the 1950s ran dry, I was no one. She was filling stadiums with Billy Graham and having her picture all over the place.
WD: Well you had your share of those things. Didn’t you get married in…
SR: Ha ha ha! (she holds her sides). Lordy, you do know your stuff! Yes, you see I got married to a bad man, even though he was a preacher man. And so I left him. Shit. Did that cause a storm! But then I got married again and then a third time. By that time, I figured, let’s party. And so after a concert in an old baseball park in Washington DC (Griffith Stadium) I got married to Russell Morrison. We I played for them folks in my wedding gown! What a hoot!
WD: It seems you caused a lot of storms in those days.
SR: I guess you’re right. But I didn’t set about that. No one goes looking for trouble for no cause.  Ha ha! But you see I never liked to be put in one box or another for too long. I loved all kinds of music and like King David, I wanted to dance when I praised the Good Lord. So you see I’d get lost in my guitar playing and my hips would sway..ha ha ha…and pretty soon I’d be swaying. And the Sanctified, they objected to that sort of thing and so they told me that I wasn’t no gospel singer any more. So I said, well hang them. And started playing the clubs like the Cotton Club, Carnegie Hall and Apollo and Café Society. And they appreciated what I was serving up, you know. But I never left the Lord’s path. At least for too long at a time! Hahaha!
WD: By the 1950s you had sort of lost an audience. But then you went overseas.
SR: yeah I wasn’t alone. Lots of them like Bill Coleman, Jack Dupree, Dexter Gordon and so many others went to live in Europe cause they couldn’t stand being ‘niggerised’ day and night in their own country. And the English and Dutch folk and French they just loved the music.  They even loved us, so naturally we liked playing there. I never lived there but did visit a lot for shows.
WD: I read once that on one of those American Folk Blues Tours in the mid 1960s Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon saw a not very ‘sanctified’ side of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
SR: Mind your own business, if you please! He didn’t have the name Willy for nothing, you know! Now I got to go. The show’s going to start soon. I’m playing at the Pearly Gates Club tonight. You coming?
WD: Most definitely. And thanks for your time. One final question. Qadafi stays or goes?
SR: Gone. Like the car I wrecked. By July 1st.
WD: You’re pretty sure about that.
SR: Dead people know everything!

(interview thanks to Project in Accurate History)

            Track Listing:
1.    Jericho
2.    When They Ring the Golden Bells
3.    Two Little Fishes, Five Loaves of Bread
4.    Beams of Heaven
5.    Cain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down
6.    All Alone
7.    Up Above My Head There’s Music in the Air
8.    I Shall Know Him
9.    Fly Away
10. How About You
11. Precious Memories
12. 99 and a Half Won’t Do
13. The Gospel Train

Listen here.


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