December 2016

A Swinging Sister

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a powerhouse gospel performer whose music foreshadowed rock ‘n’ roll.

Her most successful years as an artist stretched from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, but most of the existing video footage of Tharpe in action dates from the 1960s. That’s when she was rediscovered by fans of blues and other roots music styles in both America and Europe. On this 1960 rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which seems to be taking place in someone’s backyard, you can hear what Tharpe sounded like playing and singing all by herself.

Now here she is running through “This Train” a few years later, with a band that includes the great Chicago blues pianist Otis Spann. Check out how theatrical Tharpe is, though not in an off-putting way. She clearly loves interacting with an audience.

Here’s Tharpe covering “Didn’t It Rain” in England in 1964 as part of a folk/blues package tour captured for British TV cameras. She arrives in style—in a horse-drawn carriage—and proceeds to play some low-down guitar licks that don’t quite match her prim outfit.

Speaking of low-down licks, Tharpe’s solo is scorching on this rendition of “Down by the Riverside.” Her singing is tremendous too, pushed forward by the voices of a large male choir. Although we have to end here, we recommend that you keep investigating the work of this true American great. And if you feel like testing yourself on how much you’ve learned about her so far, take this quiz.