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Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down

By Dag Walker

The singing, guitar playing gold-toothed Gospel Ranger, Claude Ely, born in 1922, lay in be a’dying as a 12 year old, tuberculosis slowly dragging him to the grave in Puckett’s Creek, Va., in the  Appalachian Mountains. He wasn’t having it. “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.”

An uncle gave the boy a guitar to consolation, with which he composed his best known song, one that became a Pentacostal favourite of the folks of the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. The boy recovered, and took up preaching and gospel performing, taking his song with him, making it famous across the land..

Brother Ely isn’t well-known today, but his song is highly popular, having been recorded by the elite of Gospel musicians across American for decades, many of them having heard it first in church. “Gladys Presley, Elvis’ mother, was a fan of Brother Claude Ely’s ministry, and some people remember Gladys and Elvis getting blessed at Brother Claude Ely tent revivals while Brother Claude Ely laid hands on them and prayed for them.”1.2. 

To this day, Ely’s song is popular. One of the best versions, if not well known, is by a Gospel singer/musician known as the “Godmother of rock and roll.” Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915 as Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Her parents were cotton pickers, her mother a dedicated church-goer. Rosetta grew up with Gospel music, and even a child was musically talented, so much so that she was a star at the local church at age four.2. She was a star for 40 years; and then… no. None of that detracts from her greatness. 

“That kid is crazy,” I recall one day my father saying. “Always reading books and listening to that damned music.” I don’t know who he was talking about, and I wasn’t paying much attention because I was reading a book and listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing Gospel music, playing the guitar. Now, it’s one thing to be abducted by space aliens; it is a whole ‘nother thing to be adopted by them. I’m hoping that in my next life I can get adopted by rich space aliens. Till then, there is the music.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, and recording artist. She attained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll. She was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians.2. One can hear “the obvious influence from which both Jimi Hendrix and Prince drew.”3.

Tharpe’s first recording is from 1938, after she moved with her mother to New York City, “Rock Me.” “On October 31, 1938, aged 23, Tharpe recorded four songs. gospel songs, and among the first commercially successful gospel recordings.. 

She blended Gospel music with Mississippi Delta blues and New Orleans jazz to come up with a style like no other, a style that offended many of her church-going friends; a style that thrilled most other music lovers then and now. Her voice and her personality come alive in ways few managed before her, and with her guitar playing she wowed the crowd. 

Tharpe took church music to the nightclubs of big cities and to sophisticated music lovers. She was bold, she was daring, and in 1944 she recorded “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”2. She’s playing an electric guitar, Strange things indeed for a church lady way back when.

“The recording has been cited as a precursor of rock and roll, and alternatively has been called the first rock and roll record. On December 13, 2017, Tharpe was chosen for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.”2. Tharpe’s 1944 “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004,2. 

Starting in 1949, tharpe’s popularity took a sudden downturn. Mahalia Jackson was starting to eclipse Tharpe in popularity. However, “Tharpe attracted 25,000 paying customers to her wedding to her manager, Russell Morrison (her third marriage), followed by a vocal performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 1951.”2. 

In April and May 1964, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, alongside Muddy Waters and others. In an abandoned railway station in Manchester, England, on May 7, Tharpe and the band played on one side of the railroad tracks while the audience sat on the other. “Tharpe was introduced on stage and accompanied on piano by Cousin Joe Pleasant. See the video linked below! 

Image result for Rosetta Tharpe,
Wall Street Journal

Tharpe died in Philadelphia on October 9, 1973. 

It’s pretty good to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, but it’s got to be even better to be on a postage stamp. “The United States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Tharpe in 1998.” It gets better still: in 2008, January 11 was declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in Philadelphia.2.

I wasn’t the only skinny kid in love with the music of a plump middle-aged Black lady singing gospel and playing the electric guitar. I’m sure that people to this day can enjoy her version of Brother Ely’s song, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” When she recorded it in 1941, President Tubman was keeping Liberia out of World War Two, and Firestone Rubber Corporation was in Liberia keeping the world in the war by shipping latex to America. In 1941, Taht year, “10,072 men, women and children with mental and physical disabilities were asphyxiated with carbon monoxide in a gas chamber at Hadamar Euthanasia Centre in Germany, in the first phase of mass killings under the Action T4 program.”  Later in the year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. 

Life continued. Tharpe sang Gospel and played the guitar. The earth spins round, the sun sits down, and the stars fade away. Over the years, Sister Rosetta got left behind as fashions changed, as the light of fame moved past to shine on others. But, ain’t no grave can hold her music down. 

Main Photo, Sister Rosetta Tarpe,

    1. . Produced for All Things Considered by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries. Edited by Deborah George with help from Ben Shapiro.

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