Peter Stenshoel reviews Gospel Train by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

This was a cut-out I discovered at Musicland in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  It looked promising. I didn’t know Sister Rosetta Tharpe from Adam, but for a dollar, it was worth taking a risk. What a surprise it was!

 A huge talent with an infectious, cut-through-the-air voice, Tharpe would have been more than star material with these alone. But beyond that she played her own guitar, and not just strumming chords. She played hard-driving guitar solos with the confidence of a Big Bill Broonzy and the fleet fingers of a Charlie Christian.

This discovery made me suspicious of the star-making machinery (to borrow Joni Mitchell’s phrase) of the record companies. Why had I not ever heard of her? Why was this sold as a cut-out (a remaindered write-off cut-priced for quick sale)? Who said women weren’t born guitar heroes?

Since this was pre-PC, learning about past musical luminaries was a hit-and-miss proposition. I cherished my copy of this, only later learning Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been a major star. I was flabbergasted to see--in Japan!--a video for sale of her concert footage. So, Americans forgot one of their own, but the Japanese were enhancing her memory.

Luckily, we now live in an age where many talented souls can be honored and remembered on line. (Check out this video of her playing electric guitar.) I’ve included the song, “Didn’t it Rain,” and I dedicate it to our struggling friends, family, and colleagues in the wake of Sandy’s destruction.

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