Long before "women in rock" became a media catchphrase, African American guitar virtuoso Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe was gospel's first superstar and the preeminent crossover figure of its golden age.
Sister Rosetta is at long last getting the attention she deserves with "The Godmother of Rock & Roll," a documentary that aired last weekend on PBS, and a related campaign to get her inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
This month is also a great time to buy a copy of Shout, Sister, Shout! During our Black History Month Sale, buy any African American Studies title using promo code FEB2013 by February 28th and receive 20% off and free shipping. Buy two titles and receive a free King Legacy tote bag. Plus, Beacon Press will donate 15% of all sales using promo code FEB2013 to the Young People's Project. More info here.
My new book is about many things, including the need to fight for a limited wildness, but it is also, to a lesser extent, about language. I’ve always wondered why our words grow soft and mushy when we begin to talk about nature. Perhaps I am too persnickety, too preoccupied with the language that we use to describe the natural world, but I am in the minority that believes we should watch our words, that false language both reflects and encourages false thinking, that our lives depend on our sentences. I feel particularly strongly that “being in nature” should not be described as some precious or highfalutin' experience. After all, didn’t we as a species evolve, along with our words, while spending a million years or so living in the midst of the natural world? And wasn’t our relationship with that world, among other things, quite practical and direct? “Nature” is where the living roots of our language evolved, which suggests that that language should still be able to circle back and describe the place from whence we came without fencing it behind some quasi-mysterious mumbo-jumbo.
So many people who speak for the wild world seem to feel the need to speak in the voice of the mystic, with a hushed, voice-over reverence. We affect this high priest tone, and everyone else is expected to get down on their knees and listen to the whispered wisdom of the shaman. At times like those there’s very little indication that any of us have the quality that many humans find most important for living on earth: a sense of humor. You’d never guess that any of us ever laughed or farted. (Which, it needs to be made clear, is different than translating Native American Myths about trickster coyotes who laugh and fart.)
I cringe when my language grows too flaccid on the one hand–oh, Great Blue Heron, help my soul and keep all sweetness and light–or, on the other, too rigid and devoid of feeling–Great Blue Heron, or Ardea herodias, is a member of the Heron (snore). . . .
Lately, I’ve been invited to give a lot of talks and when I speak people sit listening, rapt, or at least putting on rapt faces. I suppose if I really wanted to make it big I would start spreading the word of doom and intoning the phrase “global warming” over and over, hitting my audiences with it like a big stick. But I’ve got other ideas, however, impure little ideas that get in the way. For instance, sometimes I think that, from an artistic point of view, the end of the world might be kind of interesting, at least more interesting than all the dull predictions about it. Another troubling notion is that I’m not really sure I want to be this thing called an environmentalist.
I’m not trying to be glib here–I don’t think it’s unimportant to fight for environmental causes. It’s just that I would like to put forth a sloppier form of environmentalism, a simultaneously more human and wild form, a more commonsense form and, hopefully, in the end, a more effective form. Because the old, guilt-ridden, mystical enviro-speak just isn’t cutting it. Maybe the musty way of talking about nature needs to be thrown over a clothesline and beaten with a broom. That’s what I’ve been trying to say at these talks I’ve been giving. My role, to put it more clearly, is to try to pull the pole out of the collective environmental ass. It isn’t easy work. For a costume I wear a Hawaiian shirt and to get into character I drink a few beers. Throughout my talks I make jokes about how earnest everyone is and the audience usually laughs along semi-masochistically. Sometimes I get carried away. I start feeling megalomaniacal and believe I am the bringer of a new language. I imagine myself to be Bob Dylan at Newport, playing electric guitar among the folkies, trying (futilely) to get them to yell out “Judas.”
This last metaphor was confirmed by one of the door prizes I was given recently, a CD tribute to Rachel Carson’s work, after a talk at a conference in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, to celebrate Carson’s life and work. On the way home I listened to a song on the CD about the demise of the osprey from DDT, and then another on the birds’ remarkable comeback, a subject I wrote a book about. It is fair to say that Carson is one of my greatest heroes but the music that came warbling out of my speakers seemed to be sung by a caricature of a late fifties Pete Seeger wannabe, who wailed about the poisons coursing through the ospreys’ bodies with such excruciatingly earnest detail that it almost made me root for the birds’ death. Anything as long as the song ended. This, I found myself thinking, this is part of the problem. Why does nature turn us into this kind of warbler? It makes me long for a new sort of music, a music anyone would listen to; a music that the Dan Driscoll’s of the world could actually work to: a punk osprey tribute sung by, say, the Sex Pistols.
And maybe, I think now, that’s a good place to start.
Dropkick Murphys collaborate with Michael Patrick MacDonald to bring the story of Cornelius Larkin to life
Win signed copies of Dropkick Murphys' latest CD Going Out in Style and Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls! See Beacon.org for details.
On March 1, 2011, Dropkick Muphys released their seventh full-length studio album, Going Out In Style. The songs take the band's own personal experiences and family folklore and roll them into the story of one fictional character, Cornelius Larkin. Fueled by fiery riffs and unforgettable choruses, Going Out In Style traces Larkin's journey, whether it's the Irish immigrant's first person account of his own wake or the band's in depth interpretation of his life and lineage throughout the album's lyrics. Ken Casey (lead vocals and bass guitar) reveals, "Cornelius has passed on to the other side, and the album becomes a retrospective of his life. He's one of those guys who immigrated to America at 16, got drafted into the Korean War, married young, had lots of kids, worked hard, and lived a full life rife with different characters, ups and downs, and trials and tribulations. Some of the stories are fictional, but most are odes to our grandparents, friends, and loved ones."
The Dropkicks felt that there was no way to tell a man's whole story in just thirteen songs. In order to round the story out, the band called on their friend, best-selling author Michael Patrick MacDonald (All Souls, Easter Rising). MacDonald wrote an eloquent obituary for Cornelius Larkin in the album's liner notes, along with the beginnings of a more extensive narrative about the album's main character for listeners to delve into. MacDonald became immensely engrossed in the character's development, particularly as Cornelius began to take on elements of MacDonald's own family history. At that point, the story grew into a much longer saga that is available on the band's and MacDonald's websites in conjunction with the album release.
"Collaborating with the Dropkick Murphys is, for me, a family affair," says MacDonald. "Cornelius Larkin represents all that we come from. And this story is about embracing the good, the bad, the ugly and beautiful that we all come from; ultimately learning to work with all of it. Past is truly prelude."
Casey elaborates, "I wrote an outline which began leading to songs. At the same time, I wanted the obituary to have that author's flair, a little more description, a more detailed narrative, and a deeper story. Michael listened to the songs we'd written, and he fleshed out the story and really put a name and a face on the character. It's a new approach and a unique partnership, especially in this day and age. The songs inspire the story, and the story inspires the songs. It's a deep record, and it celebrates a life."
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was gospel’s first national superstar: the musician who, beginning in the late 1930s, took the sounds of the “Good News” music then developing in black churches to popular stages and Saturday-night audiences. Rosetta Tharpe had honed her skills as a singer-guitarist on the southern Pentecostal tent-meeting circuit, which she traveled with her mother, the evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, but her ebullient personality and masterful showmanship translated well to such prestigious New York nightspots as the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. Her defiance of church strictures against engaging with the “wordly” world made her an outcast in some Christian circles, but it also made her a trailblazer and the most important popularizer of gospel before Mahalia Jackson.
Like many musicians, Rosetta Tharpe struggled to stay professionally viable as musical styles and industry allegiances changed. “Sister Rosetta” (as she was known in the church) was a force to be reckoned with in the 1940s, when she had hits such as “Strange Things Happening Every Day” and (with fellow singer Marie Knight) “Just Above My Head” and “Didn’t It Rain.” In 1951, more than 20,000 fans paid good money to attend her wedding at a baseball stadium in Washington, DC, where she entertained the crowd by playing electric guitar in her wedding finery. By the 1950s, however, as record-buyers gravitated to rhythm and blues, she was reduced to playing small gigs and was dropped by her longtime label, Decca Records. Her career was boosted in the 1960s by a series of successful European appearances (especially in England and France), and when Rosetta died, in Philadelphia in 1973 from a massive stroke, few people—in or out of the gospel world—seemed to notice.
Today Rosetta Tharpe lies in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetery, a casualty of short memory spans and, perhaps, an ongoing inability—even now—to reckon a female gospel musician from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, one of U.S. popular music’s most forceful innovators. Thanks in part to fans like Bob Dylan, who has showcased her on his popular satellite radio show, Rosetta Tharpe has become a minor sensation on YouTube, where her dazzling guitar moves, charismatic singing, and even a pre-Chuck Berry duckwalk amaze viewers. Notwithstanding this and other recent accolades—a 2003 tribute CD featuring the likes of Joan Osborne, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, and Sweet Honey in the Rock; a 2007 induction into Blues Foundation Hall of Fame—Rosetta has never quite gotten her due. The unmarked grave is a potent symbol of that neglect.
A concert at the Keswick Theatre in suburban Philadelphia on January 11, 2008 (which Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell has proclaimed "Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day") promises to pay tribute to Tharpe and, in the process, do some fundraising to finally get her that gravestone. It features Philadelphia stalwarts and gospel greats The Dixie Hummingbirds, the legendary singer Odetta, and Rosetta’s old partner, Marie Knight, now embarked on her own resurrected gospel career. If you haven’t seen ’Birds lead singer (and original member) Ira Tucker get down on his knees to sing, you’re missing an essential gospel experience.