The church musician part of me has been in overdrive this week, gearing up for Advent, which starts Sunday. I'd be the first to admit I'm a fairly unlikely church musician, all the more so since what I get less of a charge out of the spiritual effects of music than its more complicated, fallible human side. I've rationalized this into a virtue: my job (I tell myself) is to make sure the music is performed as well as it possibly can be—if I take care of the nuts-and-bolts end of the music, it provides the opportunity for the spiritual end to happen on its own. (I wouldn't claim any advantage for this approach; I've seen music directors who do the exact opposite, and it works just fine.)
An unfortunate combination of insomnia and the necessity of a lot of driving this week led me to throw a few gospel CDs in to the car; they do a good job of keeping me awake, and having some lady shout at me that Jesus died for my sins tends to make instances of road rage too ironic to perpetuate. Anyway, as of this week, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is now my favorite gospel singer ever. Here she is doing what she did best.
This performance dates from sometime in the 1960's, when she was attempting a comeback. Tharpe had recorded a series of non-gospel blues records in the 50's that managed to alienate both her sets of fans: the spiritual ones who listened for the gospel, and the secular ones who had made hits of her more jazz-inflected sides of the late 30's and 40's. Then again, Tharpe had always seemed a little too worldly for ecclsiastical propriety. She got her start singing and playing in her mother's church, and first became famous with a group of records recorded with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder. Here they are in a badly-edited 1941 short; if the combination of "Lonesome Road" and a quartet of Josephine Baker look-alikes strikes you as suspiciously incongruous, well, you're starting to get the idea. (The cut to the dancers' legs on the line "look up and see your maker" might just be the most hilariously blasphemous thing I've seen all month.) But Sister Rosetta (sans guitar) loves every minute of it, and inevitably, you do, too.
Here's the thing: take Little Richard (who was heavily influenced by Tharpe). He's quite a gospel singer in his own right, but he's spent his entire career seesawing between gospel and rock and roll, never quite sure how to bridge the divide. In his version of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," (you can listen to it on Rhapsody), his adopted ministerial baritone straddles the line between an homage and a impression: it's so stentorian that when the real Little Richard suddenly appears at the tail end of a melismatic riff here and there, the effect is almost comedic. It's like he sees his pop music and his gospel music as two different personae, two costumes that he can change in and out of at will.
For Tharpe, though, there is no divide. She is who she is, and that's who you get—there's no difference between the little girl in church and the sassy lady rocking the house with her Gibson SG, between the preacher warning you (with a smile) to get right before Gabriel blows his horn and the celebrity who was able to sell 25,000 tickets to her third wedding. (True story.) It's not just that she's spiritual and worldly all at the same time, she's spiritual because she's worldly, because she knows all the ins and outs of entertainment, she knows how to grab your attention, she knows how to put on a show, and so you end up listening to the Good News. And the musicianship is so ingrained that it's inseparable from the fact of her: she's not "being" a gospel singer, she's not "being" a blues guitarist, she's at the point where she's just being.
Here's a terrific Sister Rosetta clip. It's from a 1964 British "Gospel Train" TV special; hence the bizarre outdoor train station set. I love the fact that the absurdity of the staging doesn't faze her in the least, I love the fact that she's performing in a big pink coat (I know it's black-and-white, but you just know that coat was pink), and I love the fact that she wins over the crowd like it's her birthright. But my favorite part is when she pulls on her guitar, strums a chord, and doesn't like what she hears—at which point she coolly turns to the pianist and says, "Give me the key." Which he apparently does, and she's off and running.
Why does this little detail move me so much? It's a reminder that Tharpe was a pro first and foremost, and that in order to get at the spiritual aspect of music, there's an awful lot of worldly work that has to be done first. That's the work I love. Is it going to save my soul? Probably not. But if I can ever make it look as effortless as Sister Rosetta, it might save somebody else's.