Wednesday, March 7, 2007

a long un-fulfilled promise

Kelly wrote this for the currently on hiatus 226 newsletter... the one that was going to come out about a year ago... this will have to suffice for the time being.

Last year, I sat down to watch the first film in the Martin Scorcese series, The Blues. After the homogeneity of Ken Burns’ Jazz, I was skeptical about this new generation of music documentaries. Suddenly, I was captivated by a black woman joyfully playing a large guitar in the opening montage. Although I could not hear her song, I could tell she was playing loud and full from the way she struck the strings. Her whole body moved with the motion of thumping that guitar, making it rock and ring in rhythm with the voice rising out of her body. A smile stretching across her face, she shone like a light and rang like a church bell. This woman was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel artist and guitar slinger.
Much has been said of her presence as a performer. Having been raised on the church and revival circuit accompanying her mother, she grew up playing in front of crowds. As a gospel singer, her playing and movements served to express the spirit within her. While she was a talented, innovative guitar player, it is the sincerity and exuberance of her performance that is most captivating to me. Her joy in playing was evident in the smile that graced her photographs and performances. She was a real musical force, a strong black female presence in the music of the time. She projected this presence literally at her third wedding, a public ceremony for 25,000 paying guests which concluded with a 20-foot image in fireworks of Sister Tharpe playing her guitar.
The fireworks faded from view and sadly so did she. Until recently, she received scant attention in survey texts for her role in popularizing gospel and blending it with other roots music like blues and jazz. She seems to have burst back up into our lives with a recent flurry of scholarly attention. Two female scholars, Jerma Jackson and Gayle Wald, have begun to explore her life and influence in a dissertation and a book pending publication. In addition, two of the filmmakers in Scorcese’s series point to her as an influence in their films.
She was born in Arkansas circa 1915 to Katie Bell Nubin, a regionally known musician, who placed a guitar in Rosetta’s hands at a young age. She grew up performing in revivals and churches under the umbrella of the lively Church of God in Christ. She graduated from the church circuit and signed to Decca records in 1938 in the newly coined gospel genre. She continued to perform in churches but also began touring concert halls and music clubs. In these performances and in recordings she worked with a variety of musicians in swing, jazz, and blues. This led her to blend other sounds and songs into her repertoire, blurring her role as a purely gospel artist.
I do not share Tharpe’s religious tradition. My Sunday morning ritual is listening to the radio show “Preaching the Blues.” However, like the gospel tunes I hear on Sundays, Tharpe’s music speaks to me. There is a sincerity to the faith expressed in her music that broadens my perspective on the church. I find this to be true of more recent mainstream artists who have drawn influence from gospel music. I got hooked on Johnny Cash a few years ago listening to his version of the Depeche Mode song, “My Own Personal Jesus.” Sensing his own experience of darkness in his weathered voice as he sang those words, I really heard the song for the first time. Listening to his music and reading about his life, I am struck by his humility in the face of God and by the daily guidance he sought from religion in the face of constant addictive urges. It just seemed right that, according to daughter Roseanne, Johnny’s favorite singer was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
I hear the same sincere spirituality in the music and performances of U2. Their music seeks not to condemn or convert but to expresses their own deep faith and how it guides their musical and personal lives. Through the energy and physicality of their music and concerts, they reach a wider audience with their spiritual message than strictly “Christian rock” groups. Their shows are full and intense, from the pounding beat of the drums to the wall of sound that the Edge creates with his guitar to the gospel frenzy of Bono’s singing and movements. Fifty-foot screens project views of the band members during the concert, recalling Tharpe’s giant firework image. While Tharpe was at the forefront of the gospel crossover movement at a time when spiritual and secular music was thought to be clearly separate, U2 inherited the music that came from the blend of those musical genres.
A great place to start with Rosetta Tharpe is the album, The Gospel of the Blues, which encompasses her gospel and blues work from her most popular period, 1938-1948. The most compelling song to me is the traditional tune, “What is the Soul of Man?” While it is not one of Tharpe’s compositions, as many of the songs on the album are, it speaks of her journey as a musician and as a Christian. The chorus goes:

I want somebody to tell me
Oh, tell me, please tell me right.
I want somebody to tell me
just what is the soul of man.

She is searching for an answer to this question, for another person to reinforce her faith with certainty. She seeks the map to man’s soul, the place where he connects to God. In two verses, she speaks of searching in “places,” different locations that might provide the answer. The first time, she pleads, “I often read the scriptures/read it in different places.” At first listen, she is reading various parts of the Bible, searching for the answer in different verses. But it also could be interpreted as reading the Bible in different places geographically, as if being in the right place while reading the verse can unlock the mystery. The latter reference to places reinforces this geographic search, linking her travel as an entertainer to a spiritual quest for knowledge: “I traveled through this country/traveled through different places.” Again, she mentions that no man, no person has provided the answer, has been able to give to her the faith that must come from within. That makes gospel singer an interesting career choice. Maybe she chose this song to say that she is not the answer, just a conduit to faith for her audience.
The idea of traveling to places in search of faith is what begins U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono has “climbed highest mountains, . . . run through the fields” and then “scaled these city walls only to be with you,” evoking a sense of place. Perhaps God exists in physical form to be discovered by those willing to “run” and “crawl” to the ends of the earth. The refrain, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” echoes Tharpe’s lament that “I found nobody yet to tell me.” Like Sister Tharpe, Bono is looking for that proof in the physical world, in the places where man is not. He closes the song with his poetic creed:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
But, yes, I’m still running

He retains his faith even in the face of an endless search for proof. It is one of many U2 songs with gospel undertones, but this one returns to its roots in the live recording done with the Harlem gospel choir New Voices of Freedom in 1987 on the Rattle and Hum tour. The footage shows the band facing the enrobed choir in a church not far from where Tharpe sang to an all-white audience at the Cotton Club. U2 begins a spare version of the song which fills out when the choir rings in their response to Bono’s call. Both sides are visibly connected to the song, heads and hands upward in praise as Bono so often does in his stadium shows. It is rock music brought back to gospel, and the impact is the same in an arena or in a church.
We may not be able to find the soul of man or what we are looking for. However, we can count our blessings that we have rediscovered Sister Rosetta Tharpe, locating her in history in both the churches and clubs and exploring how she performed in both. Modern groups like U2 can turn a stadium into a church precisely because she dared to bring the energy and sincerity of the gospel praise service out of the church and into the wider world.

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