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

James A. Cosby
Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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.

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.

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.


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."

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