Trauma, Transcendence And The Bridge Called Rosetta Tharpe's Voice For many, Rosetta Tharpe's music represented a kind of healing, and the way she played inspired listeners — including writer Alice Randall — to find sweetness in the bitter of life.
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On A Bridge Called Rosetta's Voice

Chris Ware/Getty Images
Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1957.
Chris Ware/Getty Images

As a very young child growing up in Detroit I pieced together my own liberation theology. From Sunday School and Vacation Bible School songs and hymns ("Jesus Loves Me This I Know," "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands"). From the Bible text my father quoted far more often than any other (Romans 8:31: "If God be for us, who can be against us?"). From recordings of spirituals my aunt played on the hi-fi in the dark of the early morning (Rosetta Tharpe's "Didn't It Rain" and "This Train").

I wove these texts together to create a profoundly protective shield that would evolve over time. My youngest childhood self could come to no other conclusion but to believe that the two primary forces I understood to be against me — people opposed to Civil Rights and my mother — were the devil.

Little girl me wasn't worried about the devil. Jesus loved me and he had the whole world in his hands.

I was worried for my abusive mother, and for Lester Maddox, who I was told over and over again stood at the school house door with a hatchet in his hands waiting, I deduced, to behead black girls just like me who wanted to get an education. And I was worried about the white policeman holding a leash of a German Shephard lurching at a brave black boy.

I knew my mother, the policeman and Lester Maddox were all headed to the fiery pits of hell, where they would drink burning lava, and scream as their throats were scorched. I knew that even if Maddox chopped off the brown girl's head, seconds later she would be in heaven on a cloud drinking milk and honey at the welcome table telling Black King Jesus just what Lester Maddox did. My theology kept me soul-safe, if not body safe.

When I was sixteen I was raped. I was no longer soul-safe. "Lord help me make another day." I prayed that prayer and God sent me the memory of Rosetta Tharpe's voice and then a Sister Rosetta Tharp album.

After great trauma sane is something you rebuild on the daily. Over the years there is one psyche work song I have come to love more than all the others.

***

If I started to lose my memory and I lost the most precious truth last, the final thing I would remember is I love my daughter. And the second to last thing I would remember would be a little portable record player and Rosetta Tharp, gospel's first superstar, coming for to save me when I thought no one was coming. And she came riding a song called "This Train."

"This train is a clean train," the first line of my favorite Rosetta Tharp song, seems simple but it isn't. After telling us that the train is bound for glory she makes a true list of who can't ride the train: liars, false pretenders, backbiters. After a riveting guitar break she follows the true list with a false list. My father's family loved popular music. They bought hi-fis, singles and albums, and they frequented the showbars and concerts, and they had told me that Rosetta winked while singing the train doesn't pull winkers; mimed shooting crap while singing it didn't pull crap shooters; mimed throwing back a shot of whisky just before or after singing it didn't pull whiskey drinkers; pushed her tongue into the side of her cheek just after singing,"this train don't pull tobacco chewers." It was a joke even a kid could get with her family exuberantly describing the gestures, how Rosetta joked all the way through the chorus while singing the train didn't pull jokers.

By the end of the song we know Rosetta's train is a "her" and it a clean train but not the way most folks define clean. Rosetta train is a clean train because it is true, because it is authentic, because it hauls everybody but the liars, false pretenders, and back biters. Sin is not pleasure; it's lying about identity.

That promise lifted me. Rosetta was the train and she had had good and bad in her. To be clean was to own one's complexity and contradictions and wrap them in the performance of sensual beauty.

YouTube

On a bridge called Rosetta's voice I moved from trauma to transcendence. As I got older and YouTube was invented, I got to see Rosetta's "This Train" gestures, with my own eyes. I was still building sane every day, but now I didn't just have Rosetta's voice I the sight of her, of her hands playing her guitar, her unashamed sweat, but best, her audacious sound that carried me back to passion when I was quit of it, a hundred different times.

I am not the only one she came for. Rosetta, she never forgot the southern rural audience. She started singing in a church in Chicago, she played in Detroit, but the autoworkers and the urban numbers players were not her cornerstone. She played for those who got left back South, for 20th century cotton pickers and house maids, women who had nothing but a church and a radio when they woke up in the morning with the task of making a sane day.

What she did for those women worked for me in very different circumstances. I was as materially privileged a brown daughter as a 20th century Negro could be. If the details of my trauma are no longer relevant, and the details are no longer relevant, some of the thanks goes to Rosetta.

How many women have said some version of this to me about Sister Rosetta? "The sun returned to my backdoor on the growl in her voice, chasing out the trouble in my mind." Or, that after she was diagnosed with "the sugar," diabetes, and appeared on stage in a wheel chair following a circa 1970 amputation, they had whispered, "Lord, didn't I cry when they cut off her leg. I love her song 'Trouble In Mind.'" That gets said. It just doesn't get reported. I'm reporting it.

And I'm reporting this: Soon after she lost her leg to complications of diabetes, Rosetta was dead. Sweet Marie Knight was not afraid of her friend's dead body. Rosetta's favorite co-star brushed Rosetta's hair and painted Rosetta face for the funeral. Everybody says Rosetta looked more beautiful than she had looked in years.

Some folks say they were lovers. Some say they were not. I say the duets they sang were more than the equivalent of making love. Marie Knight was sandwiched by powerful women. Mahalia Jackson brought Marie up to sing on her stage. Rosetta was in the audience and took her to Decca records. Then they made those saving sides.

***

Sister Rosetta Tharp sold tickets to her 1951 wedding in Griffith stadium. It was over fifteen thousand tickets and people paid $1.50 to $4.00 to see her husband promise to honor and obey her. The saddest witness? Marie Knight. Her protégé and duet partner.

Rosetta inspired my audacious plan to move to Nashville and be a country songwriter as a way of supporting my ambitions to be a novelist. She was a fountain of ambitious business plans that made art possible.

And she inspires the blurring of certain lines. Rosetta always had her foot on some chalkline and was smearing it. She loved singing gospel songs in bars surrounded by chorines with few clothes. That wasn't something she tolerated — that was something she savored. Even when it was all mixed up with poverty and exploitation. She knew how to find and focus on the sugar in the chord, and the way she sang and strummed that focus inspired other women to find what sweet might be in the bitter of life.

After I was raped I didn't forget or even want to forget what happened to me. I wanted to organize it so it didn't disorganize me. I cleaned my mind like some women clean houses, one room at a time, singing along to music when I could, and nothing worked better than singing to Rosetta as she strong strummed her big guitar. How many of us say this, "On a bridge called Rosetta's voice I crossed drowning waters, and took pleasure in doing it!" How? I heard Rosetta! Her sound is pleasure. Her syllables wise. Don't matter what's been inside this body. This is a clean train.

On the train that is Rosetta's voice I took a long ride that ended far away from my girlhood theology. I no longer believe in literal heaven, though it once saved my life to believe it. I no longer believe in literal hell or the devil, though it saved my life to believe it. I do believe in love and witness and God as love. Rosetta's "Didn't it Rain" is the Rosetta song that lights my life brightest now.

"Didn't it Rain" is a song of witness, and it is a song of memory. The rain isn't falling now. But it fell hard. It fell long. And you withstood it.

In 1919 Harry Burleigh, a formally educated black composer and church musician, published the first known printed version of "Didn't It Rain" as "Oh, Didn't it Rain." Before the music and lyrics he offered a short essay on "Negro Spirituals," acknowledging that he had received the song and left his mark on it, but not written the song. Burleigh's mark was a kind of European classicism, but a European classicism that perceived the profound significance of the underlying text, writing, "the cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever clear manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man — every man — will be free." Burleigh said nothing about every woman, nothing about every child. It took Rosetta to do that.

YouTube

There is a YouTube video of Rosetta singing "Didn't it Rain" outdoors at the defunct Wilbraham Railway Station in England on May 7, 1964, a few days after my fifth birthday. The performance is shockingly brilliant. Rosetta strides daintily — that seems a contradiction in terms but she embodies just that very contradiction — onto the platform wearing an immense tailored coat, with bejeweled collar. She wears stylish, pointy-toed high heels with a V-shaped cut out of the vamp. Her slim ankles as powerful as her large body. Her large body as beautiful as her slim ankles. Her hair styled intentionally or fortuitously in a style that echoes and rhymes with the Beatles' hairdos. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, who are all said to have attended the show, would have noticed that.

I noticed this: Rosetta was audible witness to infant injuries. Her "Didn't it Rain" transforms the Burleigh song, the commonly known version sung by Mahalia Jackson and taught in the Sunday schools, into something significantly secular.

Burleigh's lyric is relatively simple, drawing heavily on a single Bible verse, Genesis 7:4, that becomes the first line of his lyric, "Fo'ty days, fo'ty night when de rain kept afallin'" His lyric is centered on judgement and threat — in response to the rain, "de wicked climb de tree," but they know the rain is coming for them and they will be drowned. They know escape is futile. When I was a girl and heard the Burleigh's version of the song, when I sang that song in vacation Bible School at the same time Rosetta was singing in London, I imagined wealthy planters climbing magnolia trees trying to escape the sin of slavery — with judgement in the form of rain coming — and only those on the ark with Noah, the good but afflicted people, would be saved.

***

This week, in 2019, watching the YouTube video of Rosetta Tharpe playing electric guitar, rhythm and lead, accompanying herself more brilliantly than Eric Clapton could have accompanied her, my 60-year-old self hears something different.

Rosetta performs as a woman complete in herself. She is question and answer. She is call and response. She is audible witness that the rain came, the pain came, it was long and it was hard, it was survived.

Listening to Rosetta now I hear: Childhood is over. Power and voice is grown-ass claimed. Here on earth. By Rosetta's human hands chording and slashing on guitar. By human voice speaking to human audience.

The time to be emboldened by the promise of a future celestial judgement is over. People overlook it but Rosetta improvised upon and altered the lyrics she was given. She leaves out the references to climbing trees. Her version is not centered on God's vengeance. It is centered on a woman's witness. "I know it rained. You know it rained." She added words to "Didn't it Rain" that don't exist in the conservative Burleigh version. She returns to the Bible, but to one of the most life on earth centered stories in the Bible. She talks about David, the smaller person with less power, winning over the human giant Goliath. To further turn the song towards battles and bodies in this world, she references the "heat of the day," the time when black folks worked without equal pay, or without pay at all, enslaved, without signing toward the fires of hell.

When Rosetta re-writes, guitar slashes, skat sings and bellows her way into and through, "Didn't it Rain," she infuses it with irony and that thing that sustains me, eclipsing beauty. You cannot endure the rain with the gumption to jibe with Rosetta's version of "Didn't it Rain" and remain a child forever.

I love Mahalia Jackson, who recorded a fine version of "Didn't it Rain" in 1954. Her version is all about promising the bad will be punished. Rosetta's recorded version, released in 1948 is about something altogether else; it's about the pleasure of seizing sound, making sound, receiving sound.

We know, Rosetta knows, drowning rains, pain and shame, come in this world. And listening to Rosetta we learn: If we are vigorous we find the will to float through rain on lifebuoys of witness, syncopation, sound and song that is Rosetta's heaven on earth. And if you want a taste of that you can sing along, clap along, dance along, too.


Alice Randall is professor and writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University.