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

by James A. Cosby

7 April 2013

Sister Rosetta Tharpe 

Working class blacks and whites were drawn to Pentecostal denominations.

An African American Holiness preacher, William Joseph Seymour, had been allowed to listen to Parham’s white-only sermons sitting outside through an open window at a bible school in Texas. Seymour moved to Los Angeles and started his congregation, settling in Azusa Street with the Apostolic Faith Mission in 1906. Seymour’s first congregants were servants and poor blacks, quickly rounded out by poor and disfranchised white domestic servants, janitors and day workers. The new denomination was a new strain of Christianity baptized in the Holy Spirit, and especially one rising above an ugly, racist past. The only collection was a small box by the front door when people left to help pay the rent. (Anderson, 2004).

Seymour’s meetings had no organized formats and members spontaneously spoke out, sang, spoke in tongues and were otherwise ‘slain in Spirit.’ As writer Arthur Cox put it, they were “[n]o longer praying for a revival; they were the revival.” The group saw itself as a new way of living, beyond racial and socio-economic differences through a unity in Christ. (Cox, 2004).

Outsiders, however, including the Los Angeles press, were not exactly impressed, leading to headlines such as: “Whites and Blacks Mix in a Religious Frenzy,” and “Holy Kickers Carry on Mad orgies.” (Cox, 2004). Indeed, few outside the denomination understood or respected the group, and that would be the case for a long time. (Steinfels, 2001).

African American Elder Mason attended a mixed race service on Azusa Street in 1907, Mason took the Pentecostal movement to Memphis under the name Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The first COGIC congregation was integrated, despite being in the Jim Crow South, although it would soon became segregated and remained so for several decades.

Working class blacks and whites were drawn to Pentecostal denominations. In the South, wealthier blacks belonged in congregations like Presbyterian, which was thought to be more dignified. Despite the wild services, the Pentecostal’s had strict adherence to Bible living with no alcohol, tobacco, or gambling, and no social dancing. Pentecostalism women favored modest dress–no makeup, jewelry, in part to avoid old stereotypes of black women as “Jezebels and temptresses.” (Wald, 2008). Black Pentecostals let go of their past and liberated themselves through charismata and under Mason took a “liberal” stand on a definition of “sacred” music, as detailed in one account:

A shouting session could last the better part of an hour, its duration limited only by the energy of the congregation; often a member fainted or, if touched by the Holy Spirit. Commenced ecstatic tongue-speaking and holy dancing. As Pastor Roberts preached, beginning with Scripture but then launching into an improvisational riff, the congregation buoyed him with their own shouted responses: ‘Yes, Sir.’ ‘Say it.’ ‘Praise the Lord.’ ‘Amen to that.’ (Wald, 2008)

Pentecostal children may not have been able to attend the movies or theater, but they used to laugh at the slow music the Baptist kids had to sit through.

Presley’s first musical inspirations came at his Pentecostal church services at the Assembly of God in Tupelo. Presley later reflected on how the more reserved singers didn’t seem to inspire much fervor, but others did. They would be “jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ every which way. The audience liked ‘em. I guess I learned from them singers.” (Bertrand, 2000). Presley also sang country ballads at school, often bringing his guitar with him.

Rosetta Tharpe was a child prodigy and traveled performing with her mother evangelista for COGIC. Tharpe had strong blues and jazz influences, an independent streak, and pushed the sacred-secular line her entire career. Tharpe had hits with bouncing, uptempo takes on gospel standards, including Thomas Dorsey compositions, and backed by a jazz orchestra, including 1940s, mainstream superstars Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman.

Tharpe’s “swinging” take on gospel and choice of secular concert halls and even nightclubs as venues, offended much of her traditional church fan base, but attracted droves of new secular and white fans with her unique style. Tharpe’s style confounded the press, as well (as would Presley’s crossover style shortly thereafter), who didn’t know how to classify her; variously describing her as a “swingcopated manipulator of loud blue tones”, a “Swinger of spirituals”, and a “Hymn swinging evangelist.” (Wald, 2008).

In 1944, Tharpe began recording with boogiewoogie pianist Sammy Price producing several hits and then, in 1946, team up with what would be her most well-known partner, contralto Marie Knight. In 1952, Tharpe and the white country star Red Foley teamed up for a duet called “Have a Little Talk with Jesus”. Given that interracial marriage was still a criminal act at the time, this was no small risk, but the song itself was a light if not pragmatic choice. Tharpe and Foley are dueting but when they are singing together they are singing directly to the listener and to talk about Jesus, not each other: “Now won’t you have a little talk with Jesus/and just tell him all about your troubles.” Tharpe mounted a brief comeback in the ‘60s and with a tour in England, more directly influencing some of the British Invasion players.

Indeed, if you want to know where the heart, joy and shear exhilaration of rock ‘n’ roll comes from, watch The Beatles’ Paul McCartney not simply sing but channel Little Richard in a 1964 performance of Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”. From there, it is a very short trip to Tharpe—and being “slain in the Spirit.”

Rock music’s first critics dismissed it as “primitive” and as “jungle” music (often used as a barely-veiled racist dig), made by and for society’s most vulgar members. Yet rock’s detractors got it wrong… well, mostly wrong. As a general philosophy for life, it is true that rock music has not provided all of life’s answers. Still, rock has proven meaningful and profound in its own way. It is hard to measure the impact of rock music except to say that it has been enormous and world-wide.

In the ‘50s, many Americans had found themselves unable to deal with basic, primary feelings of fear, anxiety, and joy. Just prior to rock’s commercial explosion, President Dwight D. Eisenhower described precisely this state in his 1954 State of the Union address when he noted “how far the advances of science have outraced our social consciousness, how much more we have developed scientifically than we are capable of handling emotionally and intellectually.” (UCSB, 2012). In sum, mid-‘50s America was incredibly anxious and searching for meaning in life and no one really knew what to do about it. Being cut off from primal, core feelings means a disconnection from one’s sense of joy, spontaneity, creativity, and, in short, one’s soul. Such a disconnection can suck the meaning out of any life, regardless of material prosperity.

Both rock and Pentecostalism offered responses to restrictive, traditional practices: Pentecostalism was seen as an antidote to rigid and stifling fundamentalist practices, while rock was bucking an oppressive life as a “square” in a “rat race”, and all under the cloud of nuclear Armageddon. Cox, again, writing of Pentecostalism, described the Holy Spirit, or “charismatic”, experience as “so total it shatters the cognitive packaging.” (Cox, 2004). As one rock musician later similarly described rock ‘n’ roll’s initial explosion in popularity: it was a “global psychic jailbreak”. (Gillespie, 2010). Whatever Holy/human spirit is, it was exactly what many needed. It may also be one of the best examples of America’s ability to draw from both the sacred and the secular.

* * *

This essay is adapted from the manuscript, The Dawn of Rock: The True Story of Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers, Hillbillies, and American Spirit.

Writer Jim Cosby is an attorney and writer in Philadelphia, PA. He can be contacted regarding this essay at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

References Anderson, Allan (2004). An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity, Cambridge Univ. Press. Bertrand, Michael (2000). Race, Rock, and Elvis, Univ. of Illinois Press. Cantor, Louis (2005). Dewey and Elvis: The Life and Times of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Deejay 143, Univ. of Illinois Press. Cox, Harvey (2001). Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century, DaCapo. Faupel, D. William (1996). The Everlasting Gospel: The Significance of Eschatology in the Development of Pentecostal Thought, Sheffield Academic Press. Gillespie, Bobbie (2010). “Chuck Berry: hail. hail, rock ‘n’ roll.” The Guardian. Retrieved March 2, 2013. Steinfels, Peter (2010). “Speaking in tongues, performing miracles: A look at Pentecostalism from a former insider.” New York Times 7 July 2001: A9(L). InfoTrac Newsstand. Web. 15 June 2010. Wald, Gayle F. (2008) Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Beacon Press, Boston. The University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), “72 - Radio and Television Address to the American People on the State of the Nation,” The American Presidency Project. Retrieved on March 2, 2013. “Pennsylvania Governor Rendell Proclaims Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day on January 11, 2008 to Honor the Gospel Music Legend.”

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article