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Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the British Blues Revival

African American

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the British Blues Revival

Interest in Rosetta in Britain was part and parcel of a larger trend: the postwar blues revival, which saw the emergence of a white public who “sought a heightened reality in the realm of black American song.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the British Blues Revival 1

[Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Gayle Wald’s new book Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.]

Interest in Rosetta in Britain was part and parcel of a larger trend—the postwar blues revival, which saw the emergence of a white public who “sought a heightened reality in the realm of black [American] song.” British blues and jazz fans not only listened to records, but formed their own bands and spent time studying the music, compiling discographies, and starting blues and jazz journals. Seventy-eights by Jelly Roll Morton and obscure but revered blues musicians were hunted down and treated like newfound treasures rather than yesterday’s sounds. Occasionally, an expert such as Englishman Paul Oliver would go on an extended field trip through the Southern United States, searching for musicians whose careers, like their youths, had long since withered. (Some of these, like Joshua “Peg Leg” Howell and Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, had already been rediscovered by white Americans such as Sam Charters and Ann Danberg.) Many of the old blues musicians had not played professionally in decades and had enjoyed only moderate success at their peaks, but the British revivalists gave them a platform for performing and touring, paving the way in turn for record reissues and blues festivals.

British and European fans saw themselves as key players in the struggle to keep African American blues and early jazz vital. “The British jazz revival movement took the initiative and helped to build up jazzconsciousness all over Europe,” observed Chris Barber in May 1961. Visiting Americans “are infinitely more honoured here than in their own country. . . . The incredible truth is that we now have to undertake the Herculean task of teaching the American public what jazz is.”

“What always amazed us in England,” recalls former Blues Incorporated bassist Andy Hoogenboom, “was that like these fantastic musicians that appeared—not just [Rosetta], but people like Little Richard and, you know, Bill Broonzy, it was only years later that we realized these people were being totally neglected in America. You know, and they were coming over to Britain and blowing us all away. This was fantastic for us. It really was.” Hoogenboom and his friends paid close attention to what they saw and heard. “Keith [Richards] was a fanatic,” he recalls, “and Brian Jones was a total fanatic!”

The first African American blues musician to tour Europe in the postwar years was Huddie Ledbetter, the singer-guitarist “discovered” by folklorist Alan Lomax at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1930s and touted for his physically imposing presence and rough-hewn authenticity; as Leadbelly, he was well known for the stunt of performing in prison stripes. He visited Paris in 1949, and then died shortly thereafter, penniless, in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. But by then, the legend of Leadbelly in Europe had been ignited, his records eagerly consumed well into the 1950s and beyond. “Leadbelly was very important,” recalls Martin Bernal, a scholar of ancient history who listened to Leadbelly 78s as a secondary-school student in Devonshire, England, in the early years of the blues revival. “I mean, he was ‘glamorous’ because he was from a jail and that made him attractive in that way, but his virtuoso, you know, twelve-string guitar-playing was just fantastic, his voice had a very nice timbre, and he had good tunes. . . . And it was moving to be involved in black suffering—obviously at some distance—and that, by the early ’60s, was extremely widespread. I mean in the ’50s we were a very small group.”

Although his concerts drew disappointing crowds, Ledbetter’s visit to France laid the groundwork for subsequent overseas appearances by the likes of Josh White, Lonnie Johnson, and, most famously, Big Bill Broonzy, who quickly became an idol of the blues revival. “For me the idea of hearing an American Negro singing the blues was almost unbearably exciting,” recalled George Melly, flamboyant vocalist with the Mick Mulligan Band, who saw Broonzy in 1951. “This was the first live blues music I’d ever heard in my life, the music I loved, and love above any other, sung by a great artist.” “I saw Broonzy, who was amazing,” says Andy Hoogenboom. “God, he was good. ’Cause all we’d ever heard were crackly old records that sounded as though they were recorded under the bed.”

Broonzy’s visits, which ended with his death a little less than six years later, inspired quite a few British jazz musicians to look into bringing other American performers to the U.K., where they could be heard and, perhaps more importantly, seen. Such, at least, was the desire of Chris Barber. Only two years after starting the Chris Barber Band with several college mates in 1954, Barber had acquired enough clout as a jazz celebrity in England to begin to think about sponsoring Americans on his own dime. When the chance came to realize his ambition to learn jazz “at close range, by example,” Rosetta topped his wish list. “We knew that in fact the vocal African American music was the source of the beautiful inflections and emotional intensity of all the jazz, so it seemed perfect if we could work with some of the great performers of that vocal music,” he recalls, explaining why he and the band were drawn to Rosetta. “And Sister had made some of our all-time favorite records, which we longed for the chance to add our voices (or even trombones) to. We had no particular hope of being good enough, but we had to try. . . . We just wanted to be near her while she was singing and playing [and] as much part in it as we might.”

“To hear her in the flesh!” recalls Ottilie Patterson, who says Rosetta’s voice sounded fuller and rounder—a little more like Marie Knight’s—in person than it had on record, where it came across as a little thin. “It was quite astounding. . . . The first time we heard her, there wasn’t a person in the band who hadn’t wiped their eyes for tears.”

Although they stood in awe of African American performers, British and European fans often tended to perceive them through what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “veil” of race, looking upon black music as an index of black suffering as well as innocence. Coming of age in the shadows of the wartime air raids and the revelation of Nazi horrors, and amid the identity-shattering upheavals of the loss of Empire, such young people turned to African American “roots” music, rather than the selfconsciously modern sounds of bebop, in part because in those postwar years, it was still possible to gaze across the Atlantic in search of something sustaining. American cities, after all, had not been flattened by the terrible Luftwaffe raids. And yet while their interest was well intentioned, the revivalists tended to hear blues as the musical expression of misery rather than of perseverance, cultural memory, and healing.

“We were part of that generation that saw blacks as oppressed,” recalled John Broven, an Englishman who later cofounded Juke Blues magazine. “So there was that kind of moralistic approach to it. We felt that by supporting the blues, we were supporting the civil rights movement. There was that romantic side to it.” British journalist Val Wilmer, who spent time with Rosetta and Russell on several occasions during their visits to England, groans at the memory of how she “disgraced herself ” in a 1960 interview by asking Rosetta “whether she felt Black people were better at music because of their ‘natural sense of rhythm.’ ” “I used to feel guilty about earning my living singing the music that was born out of suffering, other black people’s suffering,” says Ottilie Patterson, who grew up in postwar Northern Ireland feeling self-conscious about her “foreign-sounding” first name and Latvian mother, carelessly referred to by the local children as “that Russian lady.” “It seemed wrong for me to get so much happiness—and when I say happiness I mean musical happiness— in singing songs that were created by people who had lived it first hand.”

Sometimes this led to comical cultural miscommunications. When he debuted in England in 1958—for a ten-date tour with the Chris Barber Band—Muddy Waters, whose very name evoked the Delta, upended audiences’ expectations by playing electric rather than acoustic guitar, anticipating the ill-received electrified second half of Bob Dylan’s legendary concert at the Royal Albert Hall with members of The Band in 1966. But Waters had not been intending to play the bad boy; unlike Bob Dylan, he had no need to instruct anyone to “Play it fucking loud!” just to get in people’s faces. Mostly, he was confused by the seeming desire of English audiences to preserve blues in amber, as though it were not a living music. “Now I know that the people in England like soft guitar and old blues,” he told Melody Maker. “Next time I come I’ll learn some old songs first.”

Calcified notions of the unspoiled earthiness of blues joined readily with stereotypes of the natural religiosity of African Americans, who in Hollywood films could often be seen offering up “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” As in the reviews of Rosetta at the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall in the 1930s, gospel as an expression of “the black soul” became a common trope in the British and European press. “If the coloured race are uninhibited in their secular music, how much more do they let themselves go in the ecstasy of religious fervour,” observed one critic in the (English-language) Zurich New Jazz Club newsletter. “There’s none of the white man’s pretty prettiness in the Negro’s approach to religion.” Swiss jazz fans weren’t alone in perceiving gospel as an unfiltered outpouring of African Americans’ naïve exuberance or utter wretchedness. “Most of her performances, both vocally and on guitar, have a magnificent passion and folk quality unspoiled by her appearances before sophisticated audiences,” remarked the eminent British jazz critic Leonard Feather, in his program notes for Rosetta’s second English tour, in March and April 1958. This was remarkably close to Alan Lomax’s idealized 1947 portrait, in which Rosetta appeared as a Popular Front heroine ? la Woody Guthrie or Josh White. “Her voice rings out like the stroke of a steel blade on an anvil—it is a prophet’s voice ringing out hard and clear against the sins of this old world.”

No one would have been more surprised by the comparison than Rosetta, who tended to favor prophets like Dolly Lewis and knew plenty about “the sins of this old world”—as well as the new one. Europeans who made her acquaintance in the 1950s and ’60s recall a generous, vivacious woman, alternately pious and bawdy, who occasionally had a drink, often flirted, and generally enjoyed being the life of a party. They recall a forty-two-year-old traveling with her quiet husband who, like most American tourists, enjoyed seeing the sights and shopping in between gigs.

Because of overseas ignorance of gospel music and black Pentecostalism, Rosetta was frequently peppered with questions about her beliefs and her background. After the first disastrous interview in London, she learned how to respond with the deft touch of an improvising jazz musician. A typical interview might go as follows:

Do you really believe the words you are singing?
Yes, absolutely.

What kind of Negro Christians play music like yours?
Well, I am from the Sanctified church. Some people call us “Holy Rollers.”

Are all Negroes so enthusiastic about their religion?

In the Church of God in Christ, yes, but there are different styles. Some people make the songs sound very solemn, and they don’t put as much rhythm in them.

Where did you learn to sing and play guitar, and why do you play so loud?
I am what you call an autodidact. My musical ability was a gift from God. I also learned from my mother. I play loud because I want to express my happiness in the Lord!

Isn’t it strange to worship God with a guitar?
Not in my church. We like to worship Him with all the instruments. Gospel music should be noisy!

Is it true the American Negro “swings” better than anyone else?
Yes, I suppose Negroes are generally better.

Who are your favorite singers?
I like so many: Mahalia Jackson, Brother John Sellers, the Reverend Samuel Kelsey, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Harmonettes, Cleophus Robinson, and of course my mother, Katie Bell Nubin! In pop, I like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat Cole.

What do you think of the people in our country?
Lovely! Everybody has been so kind! I hope I can return soon!

Once she became comfortable with the press, Rosetta flattered and cajoled, exaggerating one moment and holding back the next; occasionally she told outright falsehoods, such as shaving five years off her age, when the fancy struck. To a reporter who asked whether the mezuzah she wore as a necklace “conflicted with” her religion, she replied that her great-great-grandfather had been a Jew (a possibility, but not one she had ever spoken about before). At one point, she even claimed that the church honorific “Sister” had been bestowed upon her by “some Jewish ladies” in Florida.

When Chris Barber had initially announced that he wanted to bring Rosetta on tour with him, his booking agents expressed skepticism. They politely reminded him that the Barber band was popular enough without an added attraction; they had already sold out their late 1957 British tour without benefit of Rosetta’s name. “We thought it was a good thing,” Chris recalls, “but the promoters said, ‘What do you want to bring [American musicians] in for? You’re going to ruin the show and people won’t come and see you.’ And we said, ‘Of course they’ll come and see us.’ ‘Well, you pay them with your own money then, the house is full anyway for you, I’m not going to pay you any more money for whoever you’re going to bring in.’ ”

It was not the first time promoters were wildly off the mark in their predictions. Indeed, instead of ruining the shows for the Barber band, Rosetta rendered them bigger hits. She debuted on a Friday evening at Birmingham’s Town Hall, a venue that held about two thousand people. Chris had given Rosetta billing on the souvenir programs as “America’s Sensational Gospel Singing Favourite,” and that evening, she proved she was worthy of the title. The temperature in the hall rose palpably when she made her entrance after the Barber band, which typically played eclectic sets consisting of Dixieland jazz, obscure material from the 1920s, and popular tunes such as Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” From her experience playing auditoriums and stadiums throughout the States, Rosetta knew exactly how to hold a large audience’s attention. Tuning her guitar to an open C, she ended numbers by raking her fingertips over the strings and then, with the amplified sound still ringing out, raising her arms in a U-shape and tilting her head and eyes upward. It was a deliciously ambiguous posture, at once evoking religious supplication and the expectation of applause, the giving and the receiving of glory.

Whatever it was, prayerful or playful, the audience loved it, just as they loved it when Rosetta displayed her mastery of gospel vocal and guitar technique. In a single song, she sermonized and rapped, growling one moment and executing an elaborate glissando the next. On a sped-up arrangement of “Up Above My Head,” she urged on trumpeter Pat Halcox and clarinetist Monty Sunshine as they took solo flights. On “This Train,” she accompanied herself, playing with the dynamics of her electric guitar to heighten the drama of her performance.

Rosetta took an interest from the first in singing and playing with the Barber band—including vocalist Ottilie Patterson. “I wasn’t put down to do anything with her,” Ottilie remembers. “She had done a rehearsal with the band in the afternoon, but not with me. Then in the interval [intermission], she had heard me from side stage, and she came belting into my dressing room, and she said, You’re on with me in the second half. And I said, No I’m not! And she said, Yes you are. And all you have to remember is that when I say ‘You wanna be,’ immediately you answer ‘I wanna be.’ ” The song, as Ottilie quickly came to realize, was “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and when the time to sing it came— just after they and the band had run through “Old Time Religion”—she knew exactly what to do and how to do it, because Rosetta, a practiced duettist, created the perfect space for her counterpoint. The crowd was so thrilled to see Rosetta and its own homegrown jazz stars in one glorious improvisation that it wouldn’t leave the hall until the band played several encores—not additional songs, that is, but repetitions of what they had already played.

They were backstage, basking in the rapturous reception the crowd had given them, when Rosetta turned to Ottilie and announced, “You ain’t nothing but a white nigger.” “And she smashed her hand over her mouth,” Ottilie recalled, “and her eyes grew big with fear and terror at what she’d said! She got her wires crossed, because I mean I couldn’t have said it to her, and she thought she was insulting me, and I burst out laughing and said, You’ve just given me the best compliment I’ve ever had. . . . Oh, we got on like a house on fire!” It was especially gratifying for Ottilie, the lone woman in a band of men, to have a female traveling companion.

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