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Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll

The students that have gone through a semester of the history of rock & soul with me at Columbia College won’t be surprised that their teacher is excited about a documentary debuting this Friday evening on PBS stations.  As part of the American Masters series they will air the film Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother Of Rock & Roll.  My former students will tell you that nothing makes Teach happier that them telling me they bought a vinyl collection of Louis Jordan or Sister Rosetta tunes.  These two artists never get the attention they deserve.  And now Sister Rosetta is going to get some much deserved exposure.

She was this human dynamo.  A female gospel singer that rocked out playing electric guitar (didn’t see many women of any genre playing back then.) In fact on the trailer for this film they mention her influence on Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.  Just like your teacher told you.  Look closely at this clip and you’ll see the amazing blues bass player from Chess Records, Willie Dixon.  And some dude playing blues harmonica…on a gospel performance.  Just wasn’t done.  And then Sister Rosetta plays a rock riff on her electric guitar…before there was rock & roll.  Go Sister!

How come the nuns never showed us this?  Can Can girls for Christ!

In 2005 in the blues tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival I went to see Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson, Maria Muldaur and others do a tribute to Sister Rosetta.

There is also a biography by the author in one of the above clips.  Plus a tribute album called Shout, Sister, Shout, with performances by Joan Osborne, Maria Muldaur, Odetta, Michelle Shocked, Janis Ian, Phoebe Snow, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Marcia Bally, Victoria Williams, and others.  Worth checking.  Plus there’s plenty of Rosetta’s recordings available on CD and MP3.

So here’s your homework assignment.  Check out the documentary Friday night, and download some Sister Rosetta.  You won’t regret it.    If you believe in the creation story, it was the God of Moses that made the birds and the bees.  Shout, Sister.  Shout.  Can I get an Amen?

More from Terri Hemmert

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