Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Listening lately to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I'm no expert in acoustic (or any) blues, but I've never heard a more excitingly proto-rock solo guitarist-singer. Like lots of white rocker guys I got into Robert Johnson at some point -- turned on by the jazz critic Martin Williams -- and Johnson is great, no question. But Tharpe, on a trad gospel number like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," recorded in 1941, just a few years after Johnson, rocks the boogie beat more swingingly, more rockingly. And rips out some herkin' leads too -- I swear (based, again, on my incomplete knowledge), she was the first rock and roll guitarist. And played rockingly in all sorts of contexts -- solo, with big band, with a piano-led boogie-blues-jazz-style gospel quartet, with a super-hot modern soul-style gospel 6-piece electric band (piano, organ, 2 electric guitars, bass, drums). As a singer, guitarist, and bandleader, she had the at-will overdrive, she could turn it on. The spark.

And it hit me: the demonology of rock is puerile middle-class pseudo-rebellion stuff. Not that real demonism is pseudo, but the valorization of the demonology of blues imagery by by-standers is. Puerile because it ignores the basic truth that traditional gospel is just as freaky and uncanny as "met the devil at the crossroads" stories. "I shall know him by the prints of the nails in his hands," to quote a Tharpe tune; or, "Jesus savior, pilot me, over life's tempetuous sea," from the white gospel tradition ("tempetuous," not "tempeStuous"); or, "Cain't no grave hold my body down"; or, "I am a pilgrim and a stranger travelling through this wearsome land" ("wearsome," rhyming with "fearsome").

And, of course, without Xtianity, demonology has no existence.

Not just sexism keeps Sister Rosetta Tharpe out of the eschelon of Top Musicians, but also the lame demoniacal bias of the historians.

* * *

Believe it or not, a fresh thought regarding the "racist playlist" theme of a couple months ago struck me today. Music informs how we carry ourselves: it idealizes the body-in-dancing, which implies a posture and a gait, a way of being in the world. Which is why different styles can be such turn-offs between different groups of people. Racial fear can inform people's music-style antipathies. Racial fear isn't identical with racism, but they can be related.

Haydn and Mozart imply an erect posture and stiff-backed though sprightly dancing style; Sousa implies chest-puffing stiff-backed strutting; metal implies slouchy vigorous head-banging and fist-waving; Vince Guaraldi implies a '60s frug; late '30s uptempo swing implies a jitterbug.

I went to a hip hop show a few weeks ago and danced my loosy-goosy '70s-informed funk-style dancing, and because most hip hop beats are so closely derived from '70s funk, it worked (for me, anyway), even though everybody else was dancing a more aggressive hard-body style. Even if my body were hard, I don't know that I would dance that style. Stick me in the fogey section; I'm content.

(My earliest music-history paradigm came from Martin Williams and the jazz crew, who argue that rhythmic innovations drive stylistic divisions through music history, which is why I used to think of house and techno as more innovative styles than hip hop, even though I recognize now that hip hop has been innovative in song structure and timbre, and, lyrically, in scansion and stanza.
I shall have to look Tharpe up - thanks for the excellent write-up.

Don't think you could even call her proto-rock, but I always liked Memphis Minnie as a guitarist. What do you think of her?

In agreement with your comments re: demonology and the blues. The myth of Robert Johnson at the crossroads to me carries a subtext of: black man is not born with talent (or 'genius' to use that disputed word, hah hah), but acquires it through dubious means. An implication also of Johnson being pre-cultural or pre-conscious ('primal' I think would be the term): a talent not aware of itself.

I think this word 'uncanny' that you use is an important one to pick up on in relation to the blues and gospel. 'Uncanny' to me presupposes a dislocation in space, which is precisely what the blues is about: not belonging. And also, 'uncanny' is a word used often to refer to a sense of strangeness within a domestic space (look at theorist Anthony Vidler for some great writing on this) - hence I think the evocation in blues and gospel music of 'home' and 'homelessness' on many different levels.

I'm thinking now about Diamanda Galas and her reinterpretation of many traditional blues and gospel songs, and also about her conscious use of demonology. Not sure what I'm thinking exactly, only that when I hear her sing 'Let My People Go' or 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' it makes me shiver - extremes of pleasure and fear.
p.s: I have responded to your comments on my S-K post (see the 'comments' section over at my blog). I would be interested in continuing the discussion with you...
Thanks, emmy.

I've only heard Memphis Minnie a little, and I don't remember her! I need to hear more Big Bill Broonzy too.

I first heard Tharpe in college -- a friend was a DJ at the college station and a song of hers was on a comp, and I loved it -- it was a duet with Marie Knight with a hot acoustic band led by piano and, I didn't know it at the time, Tharpe's acoustic guitar. I came across a cassette with the same song on it, bought it, and it was a completely different version, without the duet vocalist, and with a hot electric band with a solid soul-gospel organist, hot rhythm section, and wild, intense lead guitarist. No credit info on the cassette. When I found out that the wild lead guitarist was Tharpe, I was miffed that I'd never heard of her. The injustice!

The electric album -- which is awesome, is "Gospel Train." I later found the original acoustic version of the song -- "Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air," another uncanny image -- on a bargain 4-disc box set called "The Original Soul Sister," which also has lots of solo acoustic and some big band stuff (including secular lust songs) and lots with that swinging boogie piano-led acoustic band including more awesome duets with Marie Knight. The 4-disc box gets repetitive and is uneven but the Highs are High Indeed.

I need to hear more Diamanda Galas -- she's titanic. And thanks for your thoughts on the uncanny. Life, to me, IS uncanny. Anti-religious types reject numenous explanations for the creation of the world and of life, and that's fine -- but what's uncanny is, and what the anti-religious-ists gloss over -- there IS no explanation.
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