“Rebelling against constraint, she let her voice out in ‘Rock Me’ and ‘That’s All,’ and left the house ecstatic,” The New York Times reported when Sister Rosetta Tharpe performed during the “From Spirituals to Swing” program at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1939. “Sister Tharpe is as good as ever in combining jazz and religion without offending either.”
“She really used that influence of her love of guitar and piano to reinvent gospel music and to establish what rock and roll became,” says Pascale Florestal, director of a new production of George Brant’s 2016 jukebox musical biography “Marie and Rosetta.” Boston’s Front Porch Arts Collective—devoted to representing more stories of the African diaspora and having more folks of color producing the shows, on the stage, and in the audience—is co-producing the show with Greater Boston Stage Company at its theater in Stoneham from Oct. 17 to Nov. 10, 2019.
Since Tharpe died, in her late 50s, in 1973, her achievements have been largely forgotten. “We don’t know her story. I didn’t know anything about Rosetta Tharpe until I was given the script,” Florestal says. “These important people in history, mostly people of color, their contributions are erased.”
The play—along with Gayle Wald’s 2007 biography “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe” and Tharpe’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just last year—are part of an effort to recover her achievements.
“One of the first gospel singers to gain wide recognition outside the Negro churches of the Deep South … She was criticized by some Harlem ministers for putting to much motion as well as emotion into her singing. She denied this,” The New York Times said when she died.
Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to Pentecostal preachers. Her mother taught her to sing and play guitar and they went on to tour together. They settled in Chicago in the 1920s, before Tharpe made her way to New York in the 1930s, where she briefly sang and played guitar for Cab Calloway’s band, among others.
“What made her such an exciting guitarist was that she developed a kind of manner of playing that was exciting to look at as well as exciting to hear,” Gayle Wald, author of “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” told NPR in 2007. “In particular, she moved her body with the guitar, she did hotdog moves, she loved to show off, you know, what she could do with the instrument.”
“Marie and Rosetta” presents Tharpe (played by Lovely Hoffman) rehearsing with her young protégée, the gospel singer Marie Knight (Pier Lamia Porter), in 1940’s Mississippi as the two prepare to go out on tour.
This is the period when Tharpe recorded her 1945 number “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” “A lot of music scholars consider that to be the first rock and roll hit,” says Florestal, who also serves as education director for Front Porch. The tune speaks of “how we have to deal with things that are happening—deal, accept, tolerate,” Florestal says. “She was not allowed to stay in hotels. … They were not able to go into restaurants and have food. They had to have a white bus driver so they would be safe.”
Tharpe’s playing was distinguished by her guitar picking, her “blending of the gospel and the blues,” and “she was a deeper alto and soprano, so she had a growl to her,” Florestal says. “Rosetta would kind of sexualize and lean into the edginess of the songs.”
“The church community really shoved her away for a bit because it sounded more secular,” Florestal says. And “she was doing it in night clubs, which seemed more devilish and evil.” Also her sexuality—“she was also queer. She was with men and women,” Florestal says—“gave her more distance from the church community.”
Gayle Wald, author of “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” told NPR in 2007: “She really tried to keep one foot in Saturday night and one foot in Sunday morning at the same time. And that’s what made her special and it’s also what drew attracted controversy to her. So, she was the first performer of gospel music to bring that music to secular stages. And partly, she justified that ambivalence by saying, well, you know, if I put it at the Cotton Club, maybe there are some sinners in the audience who could use saving.”
Staging “Marie and Rosetta” has presented challenges—that may reflect the continued hurdles for women guitarists today. This performance features a cast of two accompanied by two live musicians. Organizers hoped to have women of color play guitar and piano, but couldn’t find one to play guitar. Florestal says, “We found a man of color guitarist because there were no women of color available.”
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