[22 February 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
If you want to view the climb
You must learn to quit your lyin’.
There are strange things happening everyday.
—Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Strange Things Happening Everyday”
If you haven’t seen her, you need to see Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You might do this online, where you can find her singing “Up Above My Head” and “Down By the Riverside”, or you might do—amid some helpful context and in a slightly clearer image—by watching American Masters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, premiering 22 February on PBS.
That context, like most of those provided by other American Masters programs, includes basic biography and omits lots of details. Sometimes, this has to do with time constraints, other times with lack of material: this is a TV show reckoning with lack of images, after all. It makes up for some of this by the usual means, with generic 1930s footage or photos, with close-ups of turning records, with album art. Such choices can be distracting or cover over lack of evidence, it creates another sort of overriding storyline, that not only could Rosetta, as Rosettes member Lottie Harvey recalls, “play a guitar like nobody else,” and not only was she a “force of nature,” according to Bob Dylan during a radio interview, but she was also almost lost to the rest of us, if not for the efforts to tell her story by a small number of dedicated scholars and colleagues.
This program begins in the usual fashion, sketching her early life: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first gospel superstar, was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915, and found herself in Chicago when her evangelist mother left her father, dedicating herself to her work for the Church of God in Christ. The prodigiously talented singer and guitar player Rosetta took up the cause as well, a “main attraction” at the age of six. As friends and colleagues remember the child Rosetta, you see archival footage and occasional photos of Rosetta herself; when record producer Anthony Heilbut describes her as a “phenomenal show woman” at the age of 10, you see a photo of the girl with a guitar, and you believe it.
This moment conveys concisely the representational dilemma presented by Rosetta Tharpe. Everyone who ever saw her testifies to her gifts and skills, which were at once groundbreaking (she mixed gospel and secular styles), inspiring (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and many others cite her influence), and enduring (she performed throughout her life, until she died in 1973). But, despite her success as a recoding star during the 1950s and ‘60s, precious few visual recordings have been found. And so the show does what it can, offering talking heads and photos and some records too, along with three or four wholly and completely show-stopping clips of Rosetta on TV.
In a word, she is incredible. The program notes that Rosetta faced a range of social and political obstacles: her first husband, preacher Tommy Tharpe, was abusive and controlling; her contract with Decca Records may have been restrictive; she had to deal with segregation while touring; and she had romances with both men and women. None of these stories is detailed here, which makes you want to know more Still, as Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald observes, even if it’s hard to know how much agency Rosetta had at any given point in her career, the work she did—for instance, a secularized version of “Rock Me in the Cradle”—is “on record.”
As such, as Wald adds, it was “a big hit,” then, and evidence, now, of Rosetta’s brilliance. Hearing it is a genuinely thrilling experience, and gives you a sense of what Ira Tucker, Jr. means when he says that she “had a one on one with everybody,” no matter how large the crowd around you. This even though, occasionally, American Masters uses Rosetta’s recordings as background or imperfect transitions between scenes. Even better, it includes film and TV recordings of Rosetta, letting them play on, so that you might see what Rosetta was doing too, with her face upturned, her body in motion, and her guitar in gear. For these clips alone, you need to see the show.