Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
10 December 2020

The photo that shaped me: Deborah Levy on Sister Rosetta Tharpe

The godmother of rock’n’roll is my role model for middle age, old age and any age.

By Deborah Levy

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock’n’roll, is my role model for middle age, old age and any age. Here she is, in all her glory and gravitas, age 49, tuning her electric guitar for a concert on the platform of a disused railway station in Manchester, May 1964. When I say I love her in this photograph, I don’t mean love in the way we can throw that word around; I mean big emotions.

It’s the electric guitar slung over her high-collared coat that’s right up my street. I especially like the neat cravat that is attached to the coat and tied at the neck, with the intervention of the guitar cable looped over her arm.

Apparently, Manchester’s Chorlton railway station had been designed to look like a station in the American South (what’s inside that sack leaning against the pillar?), but when the English rain lashed down, Sister Rosetta suggested she open the concert with her knockout version of the gospel song “Didn’t It Rain”. She blew the audience away.

If you look up the film of this gig (she performed as part of the touring American Folk Blues Festival), you will hear the force and pathos of her big voice, but I get a sense of it anyway in this photograph. It’s the grounded way she stands on the wet platform in those dainty stiletto shoes. Although she is looking upwards, I know she is aware of the wires by her feet near the speakers.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born in Arkansas in 1915, sang from the age of six in church with her evangelist mother. Married off to a tyrant preacher, she finally got away, sang the clubs in New York and became an electric guitar virtuoso. Her unique style influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis, among others. When she played in that railway station in Manchester, it wasn’t lost on her, or the band, that had they travelled by train to do this gig in America, they would have been required by law to ride in a segregated carriage.

Any time I feel defeated by my life, I look at this photograph of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and I hear her own life as she sings, “Didn’t it rain, children. Talk ’bout rain, oh, my Lord.”

This article is from our “Photo that shaped me” series

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special