Vive la Tharpe! Sister Rosetta Tharpe In France

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere, with her ramshackle vocal stylings, and blend of soul and early rock and roll. Her rendition of “This Train” was a deliberate statement, partially because the guitar sounded so cohesive, blending gospel with folkier chords. Her style transcended race and oceans, partially because England had taken a liking to American blues in the 1950s, and partially because Tharpe’s stage prowess put as much focus on the purpose of the song as it did on the delivery of it.

An Arkansas native, Tharpe harnessed her craft by performing liturgical numbers in religious settings, and traveling to conventions to spread the word of God through music. This resulted in a mixture of influences, plastered through a stagecraft ricocheting around the halls. “Do away with your pride,” she sings on “Mother’s Prayer”, one of the numbers she performed in France to rapturous applause and cheers.

By 1966, Tharpe had established a name for herself in Europe, mixing the type of mournful songs she’d performed in church with rollicking guitars and spirited, testimonial yelps. Sister Rosetta Tharpe-Live In France 1966 features some astonishing, previously undiscovered recordings. It’s Tharpe’s voice that sounds out the most, one comfortably backed by sparse musicianship, from the propulsive guitar work on “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” to the playful piano of “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music In The Air.” At first blush, these newly-released recordings seem to have something of the sound of a sermon, before the audience threatens to deafen Tharpe with their applause.

As had been true in the churches of her youth, Tharpe’s work resonated because it was both truthful and skillful  Ballads like “When My Life’s Work Is Ended” and “Moonshine” are a perfect blend of guitar and voice. The rough guitar work plasters across the speakers, topped by Tharpe’s expressive singing. The musical arrangements on “When The Saints Go Marching In” are simultaneously loose and jolly, which partly explains why the French audience claps along to the jaunty beat, mixing stomps with chants, and sparse instrumentation. Much of the work is played on a loose-stringed guitar, giving the recordings a timeless feel.

Songs like “Sit Down” are treated with a cheekier vocal style, complete with a faux masculine vocal balancing the act.

At its heart, the album is a collection of songs that shakes family, faith, and rural life to their most basic principle and gives audiences what’s expected of their daily lives. The set ends with “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” – a gospel track “re-imagined” by Jimmy Page for the Presence album in 1976. Tharpe’s haunting, lonely voice echoes across the hall, as she searches for forgiveness from the higher power that brought so much to her art, and her life.

The result is stirring, soaring vocals from a woman who would die less than a decade after the performance. Judging by the prowess, there was so much more within her to sing about. Measured against the more esoteric efforts of the year (Pet Sounds, Revolver, Blond On Blonde), Sister Rosetta Tharpe-Live In France 1966 comes across as a shockingly divergent musical statement, precisely because it’s so unvarnished. Yet it’s all the better for its steadfast authenticity.

-Eoghan Lyng

Fair use image of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Live in France


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6 comments on “Vive la Tharpe! Sister Rosetta Tharpe In France

  1. Mark Hudson

    I always loved the song “Over my head” by King’s X, and found out a few years ago that it owes more than a little to the Sister. She was a trailblazer indeed.

  2. Thanks for posting, but I’m 99.9% certain her birthday is March 20th, not April 20th. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sister_Rosetta_Tharpe

  3. John Smistad

    This woman blasted away the boulders and then scorched her own road, man. Great piece, lad.

  4. David Perrine

    Record Store Day is April, 20th this year.

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