NEW ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAMERS:
Last month Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), one of the few female guitar evangelists of the ’30s and ’40s and the first gospel superstar, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named an “Early Influence” for her electric sound and original guitar picking, which influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, among many others. (“Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.”) Performing (controversially) both sacred and secular music, in churches and nightclubs, Tharpe collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and she even hired a white group, the Jordanaires, to sing backup during one of her tours.
Two of Tharpe’s best-known songs are her versions of the Negro spirituals “Up Above My Head” and “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” but probably my two favorites of hers are “Use Me” and “Two Loaves of Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread”:
In 2011 BBC Four premiered Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll, a documentary written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Its US television premiere was in 2013, part of PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the trailer below, or watch the full documentary online.
If you’re not familiar with Tharpe, you need to be! My husband and I cycle through dozens of her songs regularly on our customized Spotify gospel playlist. If you enjoy the documentary and want to learn more, check out the biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald.
Another April Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who’s more of a household name, is Nina Simone (1933–2003). One of her most famous songs (certainly her most sampled) is “Sinnerman,” a Negro spiritual inspired by Revelation 6:12–17:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was a young girl, her mother, a Methodist minister, had her play the song on the piano at revival and prayer meetings as a means of compelling sinners to the altar. (Before pursuing her career as a singer and recording artist, she wanted to be a classical concert pianist. She plays the piano on “Sinnerman” and many other tracks.) Because she recorded her version of “Sinnerman” at the height of her civil rights activism, in 1965, some have speculated that the song is a veiled condemnation of the sins of white America.
If that song veils, “Strange Fruit” unveils, exposing the racial terrors being unleashed throughout the South. Though popularized by Billie Holiday, I’m partial to Simone’s rendition, which is absolutely chilling.
The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a founder of black liberation theology, died April 26 at age seventy-nine. His last published book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2013), was eye-opening for me, starting with the assertion that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (xv). The book, which I reviewed here, draws heavily on the works of artists—painters, printmakers, and draftsmen; singers and songwriters; poets and short-story writers—refining and extending the theology of blackness and of Christ that they shaped most especially in the 1920s–40s.
A few months before his passing, Cone completed the manuscript of his final book, a memoir titled Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, which will be published by Orbis later this year.
NEW LYNCHING MEMORIAL + MUSEUM: April 26 also marked the opening—attended by thousands—of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, as well as the nearby Legacy Museum. Founded by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), whose aim is to advance truth and reconciliation, the memorial and museum are the culmination of a massive research project begun in 2010, through which were discovered the names of 4,400 black people who were lynched or died in racial killings in the US between 1877 and 1950. These names are inscribed on 805 rectangular steel monuments—one for each offending county—that are suspended from the ceiling of an open structure. Eight hundred five identical monuments lie face-up in the surrounding park, with the hope that one by one, counties will claim them and erect them in their own geographic locales.
The first two videos below, published during the building phase, show the design and purpose of the memorial. In the third one, CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson talks with civil rights lawyer and museum director Bryan Stevenson as they walk around the six-acre site. And in the last one, Stevenson reflects on a slavery sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. (Two other sculptural works at the memorial are by Dana King and Hank Willis Thomas.)
Visual art also constitutes a large part of the museum. One of the installations—a conceptual work—is a shelf of nearly three hundred glass jars that contain soil from various lynching sites around the country.
“Soil is really a powerful medium for talking about this history,” Stevenson says. “In many ways, the sweat of enslaved people is buried in this soil. The blood of lynching victims is in this soil. The tears of people who were segregated and humiliated during the time of Jim Crow is in this soil.” But just as sure as this soil is a site of death, Stevenson says, so can it also be a site of new beginnings.
POEM: “Christ in Alabama” by Langston Hughes is one of several poems I learned about through James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It was originally published, with an accompanying drawing by Zell Ingram, in Contempo: A Review of Books and Personalities 1, no. 13 (December 1, 1931), a literary and social magazine published by University of North Carolina alumni Milton “Ab” Abernethy and Anthony Buttitta. Despite an outcry among Chapel Hill residents who considered the poem sacrilegious, Hughes visited the town a few days later to give a public reading. The poem was subsequently published in the book Scottsboro Limited in 1932.
The poem is very stark, a difficult read, and because of its explicit language (a racial slur), I’ve formatted it as an optional dropdown. The Modern American Poetry Site (MAPS), an excellent resource that I consult often, has compiled helpful commentaries.
Read “Christ in Alabama” by Langston Hughes