The Original Rock 'n' Roll Guitar God Was Actually a Goddess

Friday A/V Club: All hail Sister Rosetta Tharpe


Rock 'n' roll was born and baptized in a smoky nightclub somewhere, but the baby was conceived in a church. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard were all raised Pentecostal, and their sounds were shaped by the raucous gospel music they grew up with. And Chuck Berry cribbed his duckwalk from a gospel singer called Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose guitar style helped lay the groundwork for rock.

Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week, alongside such worthies as Nina Simone and the Cars. If you find yourself doubting that this honor should be bestowed on a woman who was already in her forties when "Jailhouse Rock" hit the charts, watch this old clip from the NBC show TV Gospel Time, originally broadcast in 1962. For about a minute and 20 seconds, it may seem like an ordinary gospel performance. And then Sister Tharpe starts soloing:

A century ago, the early Pentecostals' multiracial revivals and ecstatic forms of worship sparked a moral panic. In the 1950s, rock 'n' roll provoked a similar reaction. Watching Tharpe play, you may start to see the outlines of more than one hidden continuity.

Just about all the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll—Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash—were Rosetta Tharpe fans. Gayle Wald's Tharpe bio Shout, Sister, Shout! quotes Jerry Lee Lewis falling over with praise for the woman: "I mean, she's singing religious music, but she is singing rock 'n' roll. She's…shakin', man….She jumps it. She's hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, 'Whoooo.' Sister Rosetta Tharpe." They say the Devil has all the best tunes, but he had to learn them somewhere.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. Johnny Cash

    Do we really consider Johnny Cash to be early rock n roll? If we’re counting early country then fuck you add Hank Williams.

    1. My whole gimmick is to make an argument orthogonal to what is actually being discussed. Is that autism that I do this?

      1. I don’t think it’s technically autism. The Greek word for it is actually ???????.

        1. Nice, I had to explain what Onanism meant relatively recently, and now here I am learning a new word myself.

          The world sure is an amazing place.

          1. Wikipedia’s description is somewhat cleaner than the one i got from a Greek friend of mine – he defines a ?????? very specifically as “a guy who is giddy from too much masturbation.”

            A lot of Greek insults are bizarrely precise like that.

            1. Wonder if it has to do with what the language allows. Like, the language allows for words to be inflected with such precision meaning you can condense stuff pretty densely. Because your comment made me think of the bizarrely nuanced insults of Yiddish as well.

              Maybe it’s regional as well though, Greeks are kind of Semitic, kind of not. Kind of no one knows what the fuck greeks are.

              1. I’m pretty sure my Greek friend is a full-blooded Neanderthal. He looks exactly like one of the Geico cavemen.

                1. I just know that Jason Mantzoukas may be the epitome of man.

              2. Greeks are definitely Indo-European, linguistically speaking.

                1. Yes.

                  I don’t know the origin of Yiddish though. It’s definitely German and Hebrew, but I think a large portion of the Yiddish speaking communities were part of the Greek diaspora, combine that with the tremendous cross over with Greece/Turkey/Middle East over thousands of years and even if the languages are different families you would tend to see certain qualities cross pollinate.

                  1. That is certainly true. Just compare the Greek and Hebrew alphabets.

                    I don’t know about any Greek/Yiddish connection. But I don’t know a lot of things.

                    1. But I don’t know a lot of things


                    2. The Greek and Hebrew alphabets are both descended from the Phoenician.

    2. Do we really consider Johnny Cash to be early rock n roll?

      He was part of the Sun Records rockabilly scene, so yeah.

  2. My first reaction upon hearing the news was “what the hell is a ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe?'”

    Upon seeing her perform I must admit that I was wrong — she had more balls than most “rockers” today.

    I repent.

    1. I think a lot of Gospel had more force than a lot of Rock music. I still kind of feel The Beatles were just the first band to make Rock n Roll wimpy enough for white people to accept.

      1. Indeed! Excellent analysis.

      2. I used to work at a certain hotel/resort owned by a certain smoothie-pushing televangelist, and a lot of AME churches would have conventions there. Holy shit, their music was awesome. The best organ playing i’ve ever heard was just some dude messing around in the background while a preacher talked.

      3. According to my mom and other people I’ve talked to who were young back then they were really considered the first boy band. There were other actual rock bands that non-teenage girls were into, like The Who and the Stones. It seems like the media and entertainment industry now portrays it as being different than what it was.

        1. My father disliked early Sinatra for much the same — crooner for 14-y-o girls.

          History repeats itself …

      4. The Beatles were more about songs and songwriting than rocking out.

        1. I remember reading Paul saying something about Helter Skelter being their attempt at the heavy song ever in friendly rivalry with The Who. I hear this, and I shake my head.

  3. Very interesting, JW.

    Nina Simone does nothing for me.

    Bon Jovi in the R&R Hall of Fame?? BwaHahahaw!

  4. Les Paul and Lonnie Johnson just stopped rocking to ask you what the fuck you’re talking about.

    1. I think Les Paul has been in the RnR Hall of Fame for awhile now. But also both of their music probably gets shunted into the arbitrary distinction of Jazz.

  5. Mr. Walker, this post/clip just moved you ahead of Heaton as my favorite Reason contributor. Thank you.

    (you can be satisfied with your life’s work now that you’ve earned my admiration)

  6. Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week, alongside such worthies as Nina Simone and the Cars. If you find yourself doubting that this honor should be bestowed on a woman who…

    Nah, but I was thinking why The Cars?

    1. I had a group of friends who were super hipsters. And they had a vinyl copy of The Cars by The Cars. Every party someone would always throw it on, play only Moving in Stereo, and then turn it off.

      I’m so sick of that song.

          1. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between all the fancy different record players. Played on the same speakers, I can hardly tell the difference between vinyl and digital.

            For real though, FLAC is a joke format for everyone except people doing actual curation.

            1. I’m a bit of a low-end audiophile, and I can tell you the difference between a

              1. WTF?

                …$100 cartridge and a $500 cartridge is huge.

                I won’t bore you with the rest of what I had to say. I’ll just say there is plenty of argument about the relative merits of digital and analog. And that vinyl is an expensive hobby and probably not worth it unless you are really into the nerdy fiddliness of it all (and willing to spend some money on it).

                1. All I know, is when I see people get excited over FLAC recordings of vinyl audio I shake my head. And yes, I know there could be a reason if the vinyl is mixed differently, this does not seem to be the issue I see with people though.

                  1. The thing with any music format is that however good the quality of the recording medium or digital codec, what you hear can only be as good as the equipment downstream is. So unless you have a really good digital-analog converter, amplifier, speakers, etc. you’ll never hear any quality difference between something like FLAC and mp3 or whatever.

                    I think that there are differences with all of these things, but most people don’t care and don’t want to spend the money necessary to hear it. And I really can’t blame them.

  7. What is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and why should I care?

    I understand that they haven’t inaugurated Pat Benatar, so apparently they’re not an organization which appreciates rock music.

    1. It’s in Cleveland. And Blue Oyster Cult is still not inducted. It is all you need to know.

      1. Would you rather listen to a medley of music from artists in the “Hall of Fame,” or from artists not included in the “Hall of Fame”?

        1. Like a random sample of artists In the hall of fame versus not? Or would I select the bands not in the hall of fame I like?

          1. You select from each category.

            1. Oh. Then definitely the not in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame category. Death ain’t in there, and I will always choose Death.

            2. Like, off the top of my head here are some acts I love that are not in the hall of fame:

              Black Flag
              Judas Priest (Maybe my favorite band ever)
              Alice in Chains
              Brian Eno
              Explosions in the Sky
              Godspeed! You Black Emperor
              Dolly Parton
              Patsy Cline

              I don’t know. There are some acts in the Hall of Fame I love: Public Enemy, Hank Williams, Rush, Sabbath, Zappa. But overall I’d be fine.

              1. You put the exclamation point in the wrong place in GY!BE. Unless they moved it again while i wasn’t paying attention.

                1. Maybe, but I think I was just wrong.

              2. That’s a lot of suck

                1. You’re welcome to all the music of your choosing. It’s the beauty of a libertarian worldview.

    2. You should not care.

    3. I understand that they haven’t inaugurated Pat Benatar, so apparently they’re not an organization which appreciates rock music.

      Personally, I’m still struggling with all the stolen bases both in the HOF and by Walker. Induction into the HOF doesn’t make one a Guitar God(dess) and along those lines, IMO, while Tharpe’s skill and position in history make her HOF worthy she is no Guitar God(dess). Guitar Gods as a thing, didn’t really exist much before Page and Hendrix (and even that’s a stretch) and while they cite the likes of Berry, Johnson, and Tharpe as inspiration they weren’t generally considered Guitar Gods. Even if they were, Johnson (among others) predates Tharpe in both production and induction and is similarly musically skilled. The only way you get to Tharpe as Guitar Goddess (let alone original) is through a disjointed amalgamation of rules, the majority of which have precisely nothing to do with playing guitar.

      1. Most importantly, she was a Diverse Female. What else has ever been needed to be a winner in the Enlightenment Sweepstakes?

      2. Robert Johnson has folklore/mythology built up about him, he’s literally a guitar god

  8. Fake news. Everybody knows Chuck Berry got the duck walk from Marty McFly.

    1. But Marty got it from Chuck Berry.

      I think someone came up with a word for that kind of thing in time travel fiction.

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