Message Given at Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, Portland ME, June 24, 2012
© 2012 Dawn Boyer. All Rights Reserved.
Adolf Hitler killed himself, and
A woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe did something no one else ever had: she topped the secular R&B charts with her gospel song “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”
Most of us know about one; most of us don’t know about the other. Many would say the two carry much different weights on the spectrum of history and importance. But they show us how evil and good, the profane and the sacred, exist side by side. They show us how seismic shifts occur, whether through a dramatic act like the suicide of a murderous tyrant, or the seemingly insignificant act of a simple song breaking through prejudicial barriers.
We look around today and shake our heads, and we quake and we worry about terrorism, the violence in Sudan or too many other places to list, the violence right here, the lost jobs and homes, the disease that strikes those who don’t deserve it, the rapid change that makes so many of us so fearful that we turn against one another and rip a divide so big it looks as if might not ever be overcome. Yet think for a moment of how afraid people were in 1945, when millions of Jews were slain, when our very souls and existence were called into question and so many countries fell, one by one, and the Great Depression still had millions in its grip. Things looked terrifyingly bleak back then.
But Hitler killed himself because his heinous jig was up. He went down, literally, in a blaze of shame. And a rockin’ gospel song took off like wildfire and gave people–of different faiths, of no faith–hope. Might made right. Good overcame evil. Strange things happened on that day.
We know who Hitler was. But who was this Rosetta Tharpe? Well, she was born in either 1915 or 1921 (she was dodgy about her age) in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. She is considered to be one of the top ten influential musicians in the 20th century, right up there with Louis Armstrong. She was a child prodigy at four years old. They called her “the singing and guitar-playing miracle” (Boyer, 154). As a child, she traveled the tent revival circuit with her mandolin-playing mama, who wanted to be a preacher but couldn’t because she was a woman. So, mother and daughter played religious music instead. Rosetta’s father wasn’t on the scene long, and in the late 1920s, she and her mother moved to Chicago.
As she grew, Rosetta was known as a “sweetly saved” young woman (Boyer, 155). Yet she couldn’t deny the influence of jazz and blues, which she heard on every street corner in Chicago. At the homes of friends, she played and sang both, but in public, she performed only gospel.
The licks Rosetta played as an adult were so sophisticated and difficult that most guitar players today still can’t touch her. And this was during a time when women just didn’t play guitar, folks. On top of that, she played an ELECTRIC guitar. Tharpe did the windmill thing decades before Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend tried it. They got their stuff from HER. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, and Aretha Franklin all said she had a heavy influence on their music. The woman had some serious chops.
Here’s what Jerry Lee Lewis said about her: “I said, ‘Say man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll.’ I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s … shakin’ man … She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, ‘Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.’”
So why is she so obscure that even though she died in 1973, she didn’t even have a marked grave until 2009, when some people “rediscovered” her and held a benefit to raise money for the headstone?
Well, for one thing, her spirit was so big that it broke through walls and refused to be categorized. We all have our different sides, and in addition to loving the blues, Rosetta was flamboyant, dressing more like a nightclub torch singer than a religious inspiration. Those were big no-no’s in her world back then. Did she let that stop her? No. Her high-octane energy couldn’t be harnessed. So she combined the two styles into something so powerful that she filled football and baseball stadiums when she performed, something previously unheard of for a gospel singer.
“There’s something in the gospel blues that’s so deep the world can’t stand it,” Rosetta said. The black Pentecostals surely couldn’t. They were scandalized that she played guitar when a proper church instrument was piano, and horrified that she dared to cross into the secular pop world with her music. Many turned their backs on her. What does that say about religion? How does that fit with “love thy neighbor as thyself” or “judge not lest ye be judged”? What does it say that the same strange thing goes on today.
In the 1930s, Rosetta moved to Harlem and got married to William Thorpe (who later changed his name to Tharpe). He seemed to understand her independent and free spirit at first, but then resorted to criticizing her for not wearing a hat (a holy horror in the black church back then), and began to try to exert control in other ways. The marriage did not last.
In New York, and hugely popular, she performed at the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall with the likes of Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman, which only added to the consternation of her religious audience.
Yet her secular audience continued to grow. Soon, she was heard on many a juke box, turntable, and even victrola (how many remember those?) throughout the nation. Her sound was boogie woogie laced with blues. She had learned that upbeat tempos were the ones that appealed, and her rapid guitar playing outshone even the best male players. In fact, she was so popular that she got married, for the third time, in 1952, before a baseball stadium full of 25,000 people in Washington, D.C., and then played a concert in her wedding dress. She even charged admission to the wedding. Scandalous! But that’s the kind of free-spirited woman she was.
Rosetta wrote “Strange Things Happening Every Day” because she was tired of being looked down upon for her musical choices. It was a not-so-subtle jab at the hypocrites in the church who talked one way and acted another.
The song took off. Rosetta straddled the secular—some would say profane–and the sacred, because, let’s face, it, that’s how we all live. Only she was the first one in gospel who openly dared to do it. She combined the two styles into one, and that style became known as rock and roll. In fact, “Strange Things Happening Everyday” is considered by most musicologists to be the first rock and roll song ever recorded. The profane influenced the sacred, or the sacred influenced the profane. Who knows which was which, and really, does it matter? The important thing is that her song reached all those people precisely because it straddled both worlds.
It also raises an important question. What on earth are we doing here?
I mean that both ways:
What are we doing here? As in, why do we exist?
What are we DOING here? As in, what actions do we take every day? What are we doing, to or with one another, to ourselves, to our community, to our planet?
We can’t answer the first part of the question very easily. In some ways, it will forever be a mystery, and that’s OK. It’s enlightening, sometimes troubling to practice to the best of our abilities a way of life that will us feeling pretty good about the way we spent our time here before we have to part. The Bible, the Koran, the Talmud–insert holy document of any religion here—they never get old, because their sole purpose is to try to map out why we’re here and how we might live in as enlightened and moral a way as possible. Yet even today, we continue to struggle with the same questions and answers as those who wrote those documents some 2000 years or more before us.
That’s interesting, when you consider how much more scientific “knowledge” we’ve acquired since then.
The second part of the question, what are we DOING here, that can be answered …. If we’re willing to take a look. What we do and say in the minutes of our days, the choices we make, the paths we choose, yes, those add up to our having a big impact on our world, much as we may think otherwise. Rosetta chose to go with what she loved, even though it meant being rebuked and scorned for it. And she, one woman, had a huge impact on music in this country.
So, what are you doing here?
Chances are, right this minute, you’ve come looking for some kind of answer, or relief, or connection or validation to give you strength, make you feel inspired or even just OK about entering the coming week. Or maybe you’re here to fulfill an obligation that you’ve made to someone. Whatever the reason, with so much uncertainty and ugliness going on in the world, we need continual and constant reminders that fighting the good fight, nurturing our spiritual side, doing the right thing, is the way to go. And we need to be reminded that we have the power to make a difference. The bombardment of all the crap going on in this world, in our country, makes it all too easy to think we and our actions just don’t matter.
But they do. They really do.
The atrocious acts we inflict on others are strange things. But so are miracles, large and small. What strange thing can you, will you make happen? What miracle can you help bring about? How will you do it? Do you think of this every day? Chances are, you don’t. Why? Because, if you’re like most of us, you get swept up in the day-to-day craziness. The busy-ness.
It’s clever, the way we’ve been indoctrinated to think we have to be busy every second, plugged into our iPhones or Androids or Blackberries or laptops, constantly looking at them, constantly connected, yet disconnected. When was the last time you sat down and actually had a meaningful, face-to-face conversation, oh, say, for 30 minutes or more, without once checking your device?
We are not meant to go, go, go. We are part of the natural cycle of the world. That means, as Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a time to go, and a time to stop. Slow down, reflect. Not just once in a while. Not just during vacation. Because when you slow down, you have time to see and to “get” the strange things. Every day.
Rosetta told us that even if you can never fully understand God’s will (like, why do good people get cancer?), it can still be experienced and accepted through the mystery of miracles and salvation.
Faith keeps us from deteriorating into a mess of base desire and the worst of our human nature—greed, self-righteousness, pride, sloth, all the stuff that seems to be overtaking our society lately and harms the overall good–but so does reason. We need both. When we damn one in order for the other to exist, we—and our society–are in deep trouble, on our way toward the “harmonious death” that William Durant speaks of. Rosetta suffered the prejudice and shunning of her religious community because she dared to embrace a different way of understanding and worship through music. Yet she kept going.
Eventually, newer, younger people followed her blazing trail and surpassed her. She toured Europe for a while, where they still appreciated her. She came back to the U.S. and was about to record a new album, but a blood clot in her brain led to a stroke, and diabetes led to one leg being amputated. Her last concert was performed from a wheelchair, and then, in 1973, she suffered a final stroke that ended her life. She was either 58 or 52.
Her husband refused to put up money for a headstone to mark her grave. I’m sure glad one got put up eventually. On it is an epitaph written by her good friend Roxie Moore: “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”
I think we need to pay attention to what Rosetta had to say. And to sing, loudly, in her honor, in whatever way touches us and others, because you know what? Rosetta was right about the gospel blues reaching down deep. We now have proof of how it literally changes our minds. Music releases the brain chemical dopamine, which makes us feel pretty darned good. Robert Zatorre, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Montreal Neurological Institute, says, “Music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system. It’s the part of the brain that tells us if things are valuable, or important or relevant to survival.” Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor of head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University, says that music “allows you to think in a way that you used to not think, and it also trains a lot of other cognitive facilities that have nothing to do with music.” In other words, we learn to think differently, and in so doing, become better people.
Studies also show that when people move together to a beat, they’re more likely to cooperate with each other in nonmusical tasks than if they’re not in synch. If Rosetta had anything, she had a beat.
And people sure moved with her.
When music reaches down deep and stirs the soul and makes you want to be better, it’s good. And gospel music, well it, reaches down so deep that you almost can’t stand it because it matters that much. Ain’t no one in a place to judge it. So let’s sing our way out of our troubles, and hew right to the line. Cause there are strange things happening, every darned day.
Boyer, Horace Clarence. The Golden Age of Gospel. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 153-158.
Carpenter, Bil. Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia. (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005), 405-407.
Landau, Elizabeth. “Music: It’s in your head, changing your brain.” CNN Health, May 28, 2012. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/26/health/mental-health/music-brain-science/index.html)
Rose, Joel. “Etched in Stone at Last.” NPR Music, March 20, 2009. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102167126)
Thaut, Michael, Ph.D., and McIntosh, Gerald, M.D. “How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain: Therapeutic Use Crescendos Thanks to Advances in Brain Science.” The Dana Foundation: Cerebrum, March 24, 2010. (http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=26122)