Rock & Roll and Religion

19 Mar

Rock & roll and religion is like oil and water to some, who see foot tapping beats as the entrance of the highway to hell. Then to others the combination is as natural as peanut butter and jelly, as mega churches build massive cathedrals with worship bands that have recording contracts. Ever since Alan Freed coined the term rock & roll and Ike Turner and Bill Haley recorded β€œRocket 88” and β€œRock Around The Clock,” there has been controversy about the place that rock & roll should have in the life of a Christian. One guilt-ridden musician once asked me if I could see Jesus playing an electric guitar, to which I answered, β€œYes, He could have put the parables to music and sung them to the crowd.”

Before there was rock & roll there was Black gospel which was the flip side of Blues. Many of the early gospel singers during the early and mid 20th century played both genres and in some cases were even ministers with churches. One of the earliest gospel rockers, and certainly the most successful was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was born in Arkansas in 1915 and her mother was a COGIC (Church of God in Christ) minister. She began performing in church services at the age of 4 and continued to do so in a traveling gospel show. She married a COGIC minister named Thomas Thorpe in 1934 and after divorcing him, used a variation of his name for her stage name. Β She was signed to Decca Records and in 1938 she performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City as part of John Hammond’s Spirituals To Swing concert. Her performance was controversial, since at the time women didn’t play guitar and gospel had never been incorporated with blues and jazz in public performances before secular audiences previously. Then she regularly performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club with Cab Calloway. Sister Rosetta’s popularity continued to soar and she was remarried before a crowd of 25,000 people in Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium in 1951. Afterwards she performed a gospel concert in her wedding dress.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s popularity continued to soar until she recorded a blues album in 1953 and then fell out of favor with her main audience, church going Christians who considered blues the Devil’s music. Her popularity rose again by the time the 1960s brought the rock revolution and a fascination with its primitive music roots. She performed with both gospel and blues stars like James Cleveland and Muddy Waters. Tharpe continued to perform until her death in 1973 at the age of 58, but her legacy lives on in her recording and the proliferation of her performances on YouTube.

One Response to “Rock & Roll and Religion”

  1. rlp152 March 19, 2014 at 2:41 PM #

    Kinda like an earlier incarnation of Lady Gaga!

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