‘UP ABOVE MY HEAD’
by SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
(Snapper Music Complete Blues:
The Works SBLUECD 048)
Writing the UK sleeve-notes to Elvis Presley’s debut HMV album in 1956, Bob Dawbarn finds tracks ‘reminding one strongly of hot-gospeller Sister Rosetta Tharpe,’ an observation Elvis promptly confirmed by covering her on the Sun ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ sessions. With a voice that runs from the sacred Mahalia Jackson to the secular Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta also provides the template for Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and pretty much everything beyond. Yet these testifying tracks from gospel’s first great recording artist originally provoked church unease. Everything on this fine twenty-two track compilation is uplifted by spiritual messages. All the way from “This Train” - her early pre-war hit, written by the prolific ‘Father Of Gospel’ reverend Thomas A Dorsey. It later became a familiar skiffle standout found in many guises, at least one of which is Little Walter’s “My Babe”. Drawing on traditional adaptations, or through her own songs, Biblical tales are woven into new relevancies with “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down”, and the intense preaching rap of “Everybody’s Gonna Have A Wonderful Time Up There’, which nails hypocrites with its toe-tapping insistence. But, to the godly, doesn’t Texan Sammy Price add a suspiciously honky-tonk boogie-woogie piano to her raw electric Gibson SG guitar-picking? and doesn’t she take her contagiously energetic shows to wherever there are audiences prepared to listen – even into ‘sinful’ nightclub ‘venues of iniquity’. A steely resourceful woman with a determined physicality plugged directly into the energies that would soon become Rock ‘n’ Roll, existing clips on YouTube preserve the full-on excitement her performance could generate. Her jumpy live “Down By The Riverside” is introduced by a resonant deep-voiced radio-compere, and the song is then performed with swing horns. A reminder that she also took her inspirational songs and worked them with the Cab Calloway and Lucky Mallinder bands – then toured the UK through December 1957 with Chris Barber. It became another hootenanny protest favourite imitated and reconfigured ever since. Elsewhere, there’s even Stax-style organ on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” (echoed in Percy Sledge’s “Warm And Tender Love”, and the BB King / U2 hit “When Love Came To Town”). It’s easy to trace the Blues, Jazz, Be-bop, Beat-poets, Soul and R&B influences in the music we love. In our more healthily godless age it’s more difficult to recognise the relevance of its gospel-inputs. If so, Sister Rosetta is a great place to start. As Robert Plant & Alison Kraus note on their ‘Raising Sand’ album – “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”. But Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye were all fucked up by their own musical-crossover dilemmas with the devil’s music. And back then, the moral battle-lines were even more severely drawn. Rosetta was gospel’s first superstar, her immense popular itself proved a cause for church concern. Eventually, her 1947 hit “Up Above My Head” with sanctified shouter Madame Marie Knight’s muscular oppositional back-up contralto, led to ill-advised forays into secular blues, which shocked unforgiving purists and provoked a vicious backlash from her devout god-fearing audience. Her career never recovered. Now, the multiple guises of her familiar “Heaven Is Not My Home” – also known as “I Just Can’t Find A Home In This World Any More”, remains achingly poignant. After losing a leg to diabetes, and following a stroke, Soul Sister Rosetta died in October 1973, aged 58. Yet on the track “Jesus Is Here Today” she’s still urging ‘sing, sing, sing,’ and even for a pagan like me the invitation is irresistible.
Adapted from a short review published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.11 (Sept/Oct)’ (UK – August 2008)