Never forget, rock’n’roll was invented by a queer black woman

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Never forget, rock’n’roll was invented by a queer black woman

Words by Kate Streader

Credit where credit is due.

It’s no news to anyone that women have been overlooked in music since its creation, though it is should-be household name Sister Rosetta Tharpe that serves as one of the greatest injustices in this regard.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a name that – despite her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 – is still widely unknown considering the invaluable influence she had on the generations of rock’n’roll acts that came in her wake.

When we think of rock’n’roll in a historical sense, we think of men like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry as getting the ball rolling, and later the likes of all-male bands such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin cementing the force of the genre which has echoed through the generations since.

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However, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe who inspired the men we associate as revolutionising the music scene and birthing rock’n’roll.

Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe – born Rosetta Nubin – began playing guitar at the age of four before progressing to performing alongside her mother’s evangelist group The Church of God and Christ in churches across the South two years later.

Though these beginnings formed the foundations for the role she would eventually play in transforming the sounds of many iconic artists come, it was her move to Chicago which served as the most influential factor in Tharpe’s sound.

The urban environment and its rich musical culture influenced the young prodigy, who would soon follow her musical ambitions across the country again, this time relocating to New York City to perform by the time she reached 20.

Melding her gospel roots and powerhouse vocals with her incredible guitar skills, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s sound was unlike anything that had ever been heard at the time. Despite the appeal her gospel-style vocals and unusual new sound held, in the 1930s it wasn’t exactly easy to make it as a black, queer, female guitar player.

Going on to play with some of the top musicians of the era, including Duke Ellington, before touring back down South with The Dixie Hummingbirds, Tharpe’s reach was fast expanding and in 1938 she would record her first record Rock Me, comprising of the title track, ‘That’s All’, ‘My Man and I’ and ‘Lonesome Road’ with Decca Records – the label’s first gospel recordings.

Despite the hesitation of the public, fellow musicians such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry began to take notice – incorporating her unique style into their own approaches.

Despite the gospel threads woven through her music, Tharpe also used her lyrics to speak openly about themes of sexuality and love, leaving her somewhat on the fringes of both the gospel-orientated fans and the general would-be rock audiences. She managed to find a level of success almost unheard of from a female musician at the time, particularly a woman of colour whose same-sex relationship was somewhat of an open secret.

Following the success of her debut, Tharpe recorded ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’, which would become the first gospel song to ever cross over into the mainstream charts. Toting a cranked electric guitar, as well as sometimes featuring on the piano, Tharpe was now demanding the attention of listeners across the country, selling out arenas all over America by the 1950s.

By 1964, Tharpe was making her mark on European audiences as she traversed the continent with the likes of Muddy Waters. It was during this time that she once again shocked the masses with an unusual performance at a Manchester train station in which she performed on the platform, across the tracks from those watching on in awe.

Tharpe’s life would, however, soon be cut short when she had a fatal stroke, though she toured during the vast majority of her last years.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Tharpe’s considerable influence on the rock’n’roll scene, with everyone from Little Richard to Bob Dylan mentioning her name in interviews over the years, claiming her unique fusion of gospel-inspired rock’n’roll combined with her electric guitar talents led them to explore the paths they did.

Perhaps it was due to this string of mentions that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally recognised with a nomination and consequential induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an ‘Early Influence’ in the late 2010s.

Why we do not pay the same attention or give the same level of appreciation and acknowledgement to female artists as we do males is as perplexing as it is unfair, though as with Tharpe who broke through the barriers of racism, homophobia and sexism to become one of the most influential artists in music history, we are slowly seeing a shift, with female artists refusing to be held back by the male-dominated industry.

It’s because of strong, powerful, ambitious and relentless females that female, non-binary, transgender and LGBTIQ+ musicians today are able to speak openly about the inequality of the music industry and actually be heard.

Take a look at where the music industry stands in terms of gender equality today.