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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.

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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

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