The First Modern Genre Crossover

I was fascinated by the story, the incredible talent and the musical intuition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Today, several artists have been credited with “crossing over” from one genre to another, such as Taylor Swift transitioning from country to pop, and Katy Perry from gospel to pop. However, before learning about Tharpe, I was not aware that artists took risks by transcending their signature genre as early as the 1930’s.

Tharpe was raised in a devout religious community in the early 20th century. Her mother Katie Bell was Tharpe’s biggest influence and companion throughout her life, bequeathing her firm religious values upon her daughter. Tharpe, considered a prodigy during her childhood, quickly became a renowned talent in the gospel community. When she decided to perform in night clubs in New York where “sinful” activities attracted customers, her faithful gospel community was disappointed and viewed Tharpe’s new line of work as the death of the Tharpe they had known and loved.

It is monumental that Tharpe brought her gospel tunes to her secular stage. In clubs where patrons were drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and admiring half-dressed women, Tharpe used the stage as a pulpit for gospel music. It was only once she signed with Decca that she began to incorporate secular lyrics by means of her contract. At this point, it had seemed that Tharpe had fully crossed over from gospel music to what is now perceived as the birth of rock and roll.

Artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley have credited Tharpe as one of their biggest musical influences. After watching the BBC documentary and seeing clips of Tharpe performing, all I could think was “What an absolute rock star.” It is evident by watching her performances that she is completely engulfed in the music, fully embodying every lyric in her voice, her dancing, and her guitar playing. She picks the strings and fingers the frets with such a passionate demeanor that her audience is moved along with her. This was an unprecedented type of performance. Once Americans were no longer impressed by her performing, she gained new success in England where audiences had never seen a performer radiate such passion.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was clearly a pioneer of her time, and is an early example of an artist finding success in one genre and growing into another. She is a key figure in the genre transition over time from gospel to swing to rock. At the time, she was following her heart, unafraid to defy the social confines of her original community. She probably did not realize that by sharing her talent with the world, she was paving the way for the most influential artists to follow. Over 40 years after her death, the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe lives on in all modern music.