The first time I heard Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s voice must have been when I was in high school in the 1970s. It most assuredly was coming out of our old Grundig radio, tuned, as it always was late on Saturday evenings in Chicago, to “The Midnight Special” on WFMT. This was the classical station that in 1953, in a groundbreaking program created by Mike Nichols, began playing the music of the American people. Two decades later it introduced me not just to Tharpe, but also to the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie.
Since these introductions came by radio, I had no idea what the musicians looked like, or even whether they played the instruments accompanying them. It was years before I learned that Tharpe was playing that jangling guitar — sometimes beneath, sometimes in front of her voice.
The voice was arresting; insistent in a fierce but friendly way; quickly recognizable to my young ears, while other voices came and went. I heard her urging me to get up, to live, to go out into the world and rejoice — a lot to ask of a teenage boy. But I heard her.
Charnelle Pinkney Barlow captures the delight of that voice in her new picture book, LITTLE ROSETTA AND THE TALKING GUITAR (Doubleday, 40 pp., $18.99, ages 3 to 7). Most of the book (Pinkney Barlow’s first as both illustrator and author) imagines Tharpe as a child, listening to the beat of her community in Cotton Plant, Ark.; her mother first and foremost (a musician herself and soon to be a preacher), but also neighbors, shopkeepers and tradespeople added their voices and sounds to the mix of music that little Rosetta would later sing and play back to them. Her apprenticeship on the guitar her mother gave her, at a time when it was considered a man’s instrument, is depicted via the notes that “tumbled out” of it, from the “ga-lupp, plink, puh-latz” of her first awkward strum (at age 4) to the “deeee, dah, duh, dum/Zumm, zummm, thummmm” of her mastery (at 6!).
Pinkney Barlow, who illustrates her storytelling with winsome painted-paper collage (cutout shapes layered to create shadows), painstakingly constructed this “talking guitar” from separate pieces: body, neck, sides. Plus strings made of cotton twine. There is no skimping — six strings on a real guitar, six pieces of twine in her palpable art. Pastel colors on light backgrounds throughout convey the atmosphere of warmth that nurtured the soul and goodness of Tharpe’s voice.
In ROCK, ROSETTA, ROCK! ROLL, ROSETTA, ROLL! (HarperCollins, 40 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), the veteran nonfiction writer Tonya Bolden trains the spotlight on Tharpe’s career. Using Tharpe’s childhood exuberance as a springboard (“music in your air, in your hair, in your bones, wiggling your toes”), Bolden jumps to the fabulous adult life of Sister Rosetta, as she came to be known when she performed in nightclubs and concert halls (the Cotton Club, the Apollo and Carnegie Hall by 23), taking the sacred songs she learned at home and in church with her: “Mixing it up with beats from Gospel’s Cousin Boogie-Woogie, Cousin Jazz, Cousin Swing, Cousin the big, bad Blues.”
As for the book’s art, I’ve long been a fan of R. Gregory Christie’s painting. The colors he pushes around have a strength and a sculptural feeling about them. He renders Tharpe’s guitars with as careful attention as he does her expressive face.
The marriage of Bolden’s words and Christie’s pictures is almost as satisfying as Tharpe’s songs: hits like “Rock Me” (“about a strong-strong longing to be cradled in a whole lot of LOVE”) and one of my own favorites, “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” often referred to as the first rock ’n’ roll record because it was the first gospel song to appear on the Billboard chart devoted to rhythm and blues.
Once you’ve read “Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar” and “Rock, Rosetta, Rock! Roll, Rosetta, Roll!,” go to YouTube and look up “Didn’t It Rain,” the performance Tharpe gave on a rainy day in 1964 on the platform of an abandoned train station in Manchester, England, as part of Granada Television’s musical special “Blues and Gospel Train.” You will see what a seminal musician she was. All the elements of a guitar hero are here.
Before her, guitarists played the blues, and mostly sat down doing it, or they were part of a jazz band’s rhythm section, underpinning the soloists who stood in front. Tharpe stepped out, displaying the kind of virtuosic physical bravado we associate with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix, not to mention all the others who have modeled themselves on that trio since. She showed them how to do it, how to deliver the meaning of the music. “Man, didn’t you play all kinds of ways. Up on your toes! Down on the floor! Behind your back!” Bolden raves. “Jumping up onstage — in high heels at that!"
If you argue that rock ’n’ roll is one of the biggest forces to shape global culture in the 20th century, then you must conclude that Sister Rosetta Tharpe, often called “the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll,” is one of the world’s most important 20th-century figures. It is good news that we now have two fine picture books about her.
Chris Raschka, a two-time Caldecott Medalist, is the illustrator, most recently, of “Yellow Dog Blues,” by Alice Faye Duncan. His next solo picture book, “Mary’s Idea,” about Mary Lou Williams, will be published in May.
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