Gospel Voices of Hope: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor and celebrate the occasion, for our final installation of our week looking at women in the blues, we’re focusing on two iconic women, renowned for the strength of their spirits and beliefs, and for their astounding music. “There’s something about the gospel blues,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe expressed, “that’s so deep the world can’t stand it.” We understand what she meant, though of course we certainly can stand Tharpe’s swinging spirituals, her rhythm and her unforgettably passionate voice. Tharpe was one of the first stars to bring gospel to a national audience, and she was stunning the crowds in the late 1930s with her “holy roller” sound.

Tharpe’s contemporary Mahalia Jackson, who started recording in 1937, had a fairly limited (but very devoted) audience until she was discovered by jazz enthusiasts in the 1950s, and she then ascended to high fame after her debut on the Ed Sullivan show in 1958. When the gospel tradition came to its height in the 1960s, Mahalia Jackson became synonymous with the music and its message, which became an integral part of the civil rights movement.

In Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press, author Jim O’Neal writes a chapter on the blues revival of the 1960s, and he talks about the importance of blues and gospel for the civil rights movement, from freedom songs to spirituals and gospel. At the time, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coordinator Worth Long sought musicians for the cause, to bring people together and raise community spirit. Long recalled:

The freedom singers would sing spirituals, gospel, and then they had some work song and blues element. The fact that it happened in jail for your freedom meant that it became sacred in a sense, no matter how you sang it. In jail, people sang a lot of blues, man, a lot of blues.

For International Women’s Day, we could all use some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s and Mahalia Jackson’s open inspiration in confronting the continuing challenges women face. As Mahalia wrote in her 1966 autobiography: “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them you are delivered of your burden. You have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.” Thank you for spreading that hope, Mahalia—today we celebrate your memory and your legacy.

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

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