We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe stands as one of the most influential yet overlooked figures in the development of American popular music. Her music spanned the styles of the ’30s and ’40s and embodied the sounds of the pre-War African-American migration. Austria’s Document Records has released Tharpe’s complete recorded works from 1938 through 1944 in two volumes. On the first, Tharpe’s six-string accompanies her vocals on songs associated with guitar evangelists (“This Train,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), works reflecting the rise of composed gospel music (most notably Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord Take My Hand” and “Rock Me”), and secular tunes identical in structure to the sacred songs (“My Man and I”). Volume One also features eight sides from 1941 on which Tharpe fronts Lucky Millinder’s orchestra. Two of these big-band arrangements revisit titles she recorded in her first 1938 session, and three performances were recorded as “soundies,” short films made for video jukeboxes. In 1942, Tharpe is again fronting the Millinder band, only now she’s singing “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.” This secular music alienated the singer from her church audience, but brought her a wider national following. But Tharpe continued to perform sacred material while exploring the jazz idiom, in 1943 joining Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five for “Down by the Riverside.” In fact, 14 of Volume Two’s 27 tracks are sacred songs, with Tharpe once again accompanying herself on guitar, perhaps attempting to win back some of the listeners she had lost. Two sacred sides from 1944on which Tharpe is backed by the Sammy Price Trio, a piano-driven R&B comboclose this outstanding set, which, like its Viennese label’s other comprehensive reissues, will certainly lead a new generation of listeners to seek out the roots of American music.