The Essence of Rock 'n' Roll: 'American Masters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe'

Seeing recordings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe is genuinely thrilling, 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.

American Masters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Airtime: Friday, 10pm ET
Cast: Joe Boyd, Lottie Henry, Gordon Stoker Howard Carroll, Anthony Heilbut, Roxie Moore; Ira Tucker, Jr., Gayle Wald
Network: PBS
Air date: 2013-02-22
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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

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