Sister Rosetta Tharpe 

Spirituals in Rhythm

Seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Berkeley Folk Festival in the early '60s was like watching a force of nature. She was dressed in a Pentecostal church choir robe and a big gold electric guitar hung from her shoulder. She danced around the stage shouting the gospel and playing fat, reverb-drenched notes that echoed through the Berkeley hills like the sound of the final triumphant trumpet calling saints and sinners home to glory. Sure, Joan Baez and a few other folksinger chicks strummed acoustics, but this was the first time we truly saw a woman play guitar with the kind of electrified soul that was then reverberating through the music industry and ushering in the folk-rock era. The power of Tharpe's guitar, coupled with her big, booming voice and charismatic stage presence, had many an atheist clapping their hands and joining in on the choruses to songs such as "This Train," a gospel tune that she introduced to white folk musicians with her Decca hit in 1938.

Tharpe was one of the first black gospel acts to cross over to mainstream white acceptance, and during World War II was one of only two gospel performers (the Golden Gate Quartet was the other) to record for the government's V-Disc project, which shipped 78rpm recordings to serving soldiers around the world. This is one of the few Tharpe CDs in print, and it's a dandy. The only complaints would be its lack of recording information -- who sings backup, who plays bass, etc. -- and the shortness of the program, a mere twelve tunes that take up a scant thirty minutes. But what a sweet and sanctified thirty minutes. "What Are They Doing in Heaven?" and "God Leads Us Along" are extended tracks that feature strong guitar vamps and a call-and-response from an unidentified female choir that lend the messages a soulful urgency. Tharpe's guitar on "Shine for Jesus" combines country and blues licks in a way that prefigures the guitar lines that would make Chuck Berry a legend, and punctuates the last word of several lines with the kind of soulful falsetto melismas that became Little Richard's trademark.


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