Holy Rollers, Rock 'n' Rollers, and the Birth of Rock Music

by James A. Cosby

7 April 2013

While today rock is ubiquitous, few of us really understand the nuts and bolts of rock’s beginnings and especially not of rock’s crucial debt to the so-called "holy rollers" of the Pentecostal church. That Pentecostal-rock connection is a key to understanding what makes rock 'n' roll what it is.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe 

No story speaks to America’s spirit of rebellion and its sacred-secular tensions more than the deeper, true story of rock music. While today rock is ubiquitous, few of us really understand the nuts and bolts of rock’s beginnings and especially not of rock’s crucial debt to the so-called “holy rollers” of the Pentecostal church. That Pentecostal-rock connection, in fact, is a key to understanding what makes rock ‘n’ roll what it is.

Any short list of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll that best exemplified the wild and unhinged approach to making this music, both the wildest and the most joyous of performers, starts with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. Presley’s talent, ambition, skin color, and bold sexuality were enough to spark the world-wide, rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon. Lewis was nicknamed “The Killer” for a reason and his wild live shows were essentially sexualized, proto-punk rock, with Lewis pounding out a beat on his piano, kicking his chair across the room, and stomping on the piano keys with his feet, body, whatever. Richard bridged the spiritual ecstasy of the black church with the orgasmic highs of the secular world, while unleashing the most musical screams ever heard. Aside from being three of rock’s most crucial artists, what else do they have in common? Each was raised in, and had their musical lives formed in, the Pentecostal churches of the South.

The Pentecostals are the pejoratively nicknamed “holy rollers,” due to parishioner’s being “slain in the Spirit” and literally writhing and rolling in the church aisles, and are further well known for “speaking in tongues,” and all fueled by an equally wild and emotional music. In fact, the story of modern Pentecostalism, which began in 1905 in Los Angeles, is a familiar one: racial of integration well-before integration’s wider social acceptance; practitioners speaking in a manner that made no sense to outsiders; and wildly emotive services fueled by equally frenetic music. Outside observers truly thought that these participants had gone mad.

One performer in particular is most responsible for linking the “reeling and rocking” of the Pentecostal church to rock ‘n’ roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe remains mostly anonymous although she did just get a segment on PBS’s American Masters, but she was a popular ‘40s gospel/R&B crossover star. Viewing Tharpe’s video performances today is simply jarring. One, a performance of “Up Above My Head” is black and white footage of a then 47-year-old black woman playing an electric guitar. Tharpe looks like she could be a younger grandmother in her conservative, ankle-length church dress. Everything about the footage is simultaneously confusing and electrifying. The set is made to look like a church, presumably in the South, and Tharpe is backed by some fifty hand-clapping, African American choir members in white robes. Tharpe is not simply singing the gospel, she is rocking the gospel. When she gets to her guitar solo, she is effortlessly tearing her guitar up. Her singing is both confident and joyous and, as her biographer put it, both “fierce and smooth” (Wald, 2008):

Up above my head,
There is music in the air,
And I really do believe,
I really do believe there is a joy somewhere.

Tharpe is so enthralled that at one point she does a small windmill motion with her right hand, similar to the move the Who guitarist Pete Townshend later made his signature. For whatever reasons, it is rare enough to see a black woman on an electric guitar but a black woman shredding one in a church back in the olden days? It almost comes across as a Forrest Gump-inspired special effect.

The footage is actually from a television show in 1962, but the black-and-white stock and the conservative dress make it seem much older. Tharpe’s music did change some after the onset of the rock revolution but not her basic style. This particular song was first recorded in 1947. The guitar picking of the original version has more of a country feel—Tharpe was in fact a rare black performer on the Grand Ole Opry show itself in 1949—but it is the same bouncing tempos and guitar, and huge vocals.

Tharpe experienced considerable commercial success in the ‘40s, but when the rock revolution came it was divided on generational grounds. Rock’s troops were teenagers and the troops were looking for one of their own to lead the way—not a 47-year-old with strong ties to the church. Thus, sadly, Tharpe’s name and music has largely faded. When Tharpe died in Philadelphia in 1973, her husband did not pay for a headstone, thus Tharpe’s grave remained unmarked until right after her overdue biography was published in 2008 at a benefit concert for which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania proclaimed “Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day”. However, whom Tharpe’s music was never lost on were those first giants of rock ‘n’ roll.

Tharpe was both Little Richard and Johnny Cash’s all-time favorite singer. (Wald, 2008) Richard recalled that the day as a child when he was introduced to his hero before a show and singing for her, and Tharpe later bringing Richard onstage to sing with her, as the defining day of his life. Tharpe had devout fans in hugely influential Memphians deejay Dewey Phillips, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (no relation), along with the Sun rockabilly stars, including Cash, Presley, Lewis, and Carl Perkins (Cantor, 2005). Tharpe’s hit, “Strange Things (Are Happening Every Day),” was the song Perkins learned the guitar on and was his father’s all-time favorite song. Referring to “Strange Things,” Perkins had said, “It was rockabilly, that was it—it was.” Lewis had sung a Tharpe song as part of his first audition for Sam Phillips. After seeing Tharpe perform live in 1957, Lewis commented, “I said, ‘Say, man, there’s a woman that can sing some rock ‘n’ roll.’ I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock ‘n’ roll. She’s… shakin’, man…. She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, ‘Whoooo.’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Like rock music, Pentecostalism tapped into something—a Holy Spirit—or human spirit? Whatever it was, it was deep and it seems to embody the sacred-secular tensions that run throughout the amazing story of rock. (Wald, 2008).

Many mainstream Protestant churches ban dancing and avoid any music that stirs listeners to lose control of their bodies. The entire purpose of Pentecostalism, on the other hand, was to play that music that most let them feel the Holy Spirit in their bodies. Drums, guitars, trumpets all helped Protestants “shout” their faith, and drew elements from not only hymns and slave spirituals, but blues, as well. (Cox, 2001). The denomination had caught on mostly in poor regions in the South – thus Pentecostalism became known as a very odd “hillbilly religion,” although it has since grown far beyond the Deep South and today enjoys a large, world-wide following.

The tenets of Pentecostalism are taken from the Book of Acts 2 from the Bible, referring to the earliest practices of the church where it was said to be necessary for Christians to be baptized in the Holy Spirit:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them. (Act 2:19)

The outpouring of spirit that came out in otherwise unintelligible verbiage was said to be beyond known language—it was instead a universal language that united peoples from all nations and immediately preceded an End Times. Those that experienced the speaking in tongues were spiritually baptized and would experience “prophesy” and “dream dreams,” before being shown “the wonders of Heaven.” For the rest: “blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke.” (Cox, 2001)

For many years the church’s official interpretation of spiritual gifts, speaking tongues and prophecy was seen as the exclusive realm of the prophets and was no longer a relevant phenomenon, or practitioners otherwise simply ignored the text.

The modern Pentecostal denomination began in the early 20th century. Early on, fundamentalists despised Pentecostals, seeing them as superstitious and fanatical. Where Pentecostals spurred the dogma and doctrines of “text driven” fundamentalists, they instead focused on a personal experience of God.

Kansan Charles Fox Parham was a former Methodist preacher who, in 1898, spearheaded the Pentecostalism movement in the U.S. with its emphasis on the trance-like state of glossolia, and the sense of urgency that comes with the belief that the “End Days” (Acts 2:17) were near. Parham did not believe in the co-mingling of the races nor in ecstatic manifestations. Parham was eventually disgraced with allegations of homosexuality on two separate occasions.

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