Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Electric Guitar Pioneer

American singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing on stage with her guitar and Chris Barber's Jazz Band, Cardiff, Wales, November 1957. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

As a keen student of guitar and bass, I can never read enough about women who have played guitar. I’m eager to learn about them and their stories, about the experiences that infuse their playing and musicianship with skill and creativity.

At Oxford American, as part of their Southern Music Issue, Rosanne Cash celebrates the life and career of electric guitar pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an American singer and guitarist who influenced Elvis, Keith Richards, and Johnny Cash.

Her distorted Gibson and a voice that echoed from the center of the earth floated out of a lifetime of holy and carnal exaltations into the future, and changed the trajectory of rock & roll, blues, and soul music. …

Then she struts across the edge of the platform, with a little shimmy in her step, talking all the way about how fine the people are, how happy she is, how sweet everyone is. The band on the platform is vamping and the crowd is clapping in time. She picks her guitar up, where it is resting in what appears to be an empty washbasin, straps it on, and hits a couple of notes, in the wrong key. She calls to the band to ask for the right key and then—she brings it. My God, she brings it. She launches into “Didn’t It Rain” and it is transcendent, chilling, thrilling, and everything music is supposed to be.

Then comes the moment, two minutes and forty-nine seconds into the film, the few seconds that are a master class in performance, which I have watched dozens of times. She makes this little move that I’ve seen her do in other performance clips, but there is something particular about this one. She is playing her solo, and she lets go of the guitar and holds her hand up in front of her chest and leans forward, rocking back and forth a little, as if the strings are vibrating through her body. Her face is inscrutable. She is, as they say, filled with the spirit. To me, she looks to be in a numinous, otherworldly place. She is incredibly graceful, decked out in her Sunday best with her close-cropped, finely styled hair. She doesn’t care that it’s raining or that she is performing in a Brit’s weirdly conceived idea of the rural South, with wagon wheels and rocking chairs, or that the audience is sitting tightly packed on the other side of the wide expanse of the unused railroad tracks, shivering in the cold rain. She is not thinking of herself, or them, or about how to play the chords or the words of the song, she is not thinking of her last note, or the next one, or how her shoes look or if her hair is in place, she is not embarrassed that she started the song in the wrong key a couple of minutes earlier, she doesn’t care how awkward that horse and buggy arrival was. She’s not thinking of anything at all. She is a vehicle of musical ecstasy.

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