One of Tharpe’s landmark albums.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s story in hindsight makes perfect sense, as does her position as a rock ‘n’ roll early influence, as the Hall of Fame puts it. Her strong voice, technical skills on the electric guitar, and ability to blend blues, jazz, and gospel sets her up as an accessible figure in conversations about the roots of rock. Her willingness to sing the sacred as well as the secular epitomizes at least the history of R&B, yet it also probably limited her lasting success in both worlds. Maybe for that reason – but probably for a confluence of other reasons, too – Tharpe doesn’t get the attention she warrants, particularly in the form of listening. To many, she remains a musical footnote who is talked about more than she’s actually listened to. Despite her canonical status, she remains underappreciated in experience. With the new reissue of 1956’s Gospel Train, one of Tharpe’s landmark albums, Rumble Records offers a small corrective.
On the surface, the album provides exactly what a listener might expand, some originals, some traditionals, and a mix of influences. The energetic versions of “Jericho” and the well known “99 ½ Won’t Do” that open and close the album, respectively, aptly reflect an artist turning the gospel sounds into something with a newer bounce. Still, on this record, there remains less jump than blues, but Tharpe sings and plays black church music into a new context as well as any of her peers, part of the era where rock ‘n’ roll was becoming a solidified sound.
“Fly Away” makes for one of the more interesting case studies. Credited to Tharpe, the song comes from the 1929 hymn by Albert Brumley. Tharpe makes it her own, though, avoiding the chapel sounds and staying far from the later Americana versions that became so prevalent. The song jumps throughout; Tharpe’s flying away has less to do with peace and artful harmony that it does with joy and liberation. Her guitar turns loose here. She plays scattered runs and riffs that feel out of place in the tradition, but essential to the exuberance of the song. When considering Tharpe in historical context, this sort of playing stands out as she runs the guitar through several different backgrounds to produce the jazzy parts that anticipate rock.
That guitar work shines throughout, even when it remains more understated (as on most of the album). Tharpe’s work stands at the center of a web of connections, drawing from someone like Charlie Christian, but pointing with equal accuracy to artists like Chuck Berry and B.B. King. Her sharp clean lines waste no notes, but, when she’s in a mind for it, suffer no shortage of them either, equally effective whether playing above a straightforward rhythm or driving some swing. When she gets deeper into the blues, as on “Two Little Fishes, Five Loaves of Bread,” she pulls the nightclub right into the church (or maybe creates a whole new king of nightclub, depending on where you stand).
Tracks like that one or “Precious Memories” (prefiguring Aretha Franklin far more than the numerous country versions of the song) remind us just how good her voice was. Tharpe remains in control at all times, but without holding anything back, matching her emotive turns with vocal precision. Her gospel roots stand out, but with a style equally adaptable to any of the genres that come up in talk about her.
It’s that sort of flexibility that makes it possible for Tharpe’s actual talent to be forgotten. She becomes a useful landmark: a genre blender, a woman playing (electric!) guitar (in the 1950s!), a precursor to whatever we want her to be a precursor to. That sort of historicizing isn’t inaccurate, but it misses the point. Tharpe was a remarkable artist, gifted as both a guitarist and a vocalist, who performed impressive songs with unique style. Gospel Train marks a particular moment for her, but one that reveals that expanse of genius – and entertainment – she could provide.