012 :: ROSETTAListen to "012 :: ROSETTA" on Spreaker.
Gospel Train by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, released by Mercury Records in 1956. Listen
You never just hear the music itself. Music always exists in relation to other music in our minds. Each piece of music reminds us of countless others, becoming a kaleidoscopic soundscape of sonic resonances and reverberations. Everything you ever hear is refracted through everything else you've ever heard.
Typically, we experience this as a recognition of an artist's influences, when we can hear in their music how they're building on prior work, expanding, remixing, and reimagining familiar sounds, rhythms, and textures. Occasionally, we experience this as an appreciation of what's to come, when we can hear in some music a nascent version of what other artists will go on to perfect.
And sometimes, we chance upon a piece of music from the past which had somehow escaped our notice but which was absolutely foundational to everything that came after it. Hearing such music for the first time is like a revelation, reorienting everything we thought we knew and took for granted. Suddenly, the familiar seems strange, and then becomes even more familiar. History is turned on its head, then comes into focus, and then clicks into place.
Before I heard this record I thought I knew something about rock and roll and rhythm and blues. Turns out, I knew nothing. Turns out, everything I'd always associated with the genre was a mere approximation of this music, which is the true and genuine article. Listening to it is like hearing the DNA, or essence, of rock and roll: the effortlessness of its swing and its groove, its overabundance of energy and verve, the soulfulness of its vocals, the vigorous yet plaintive counterpoint of its lead guitar. Everything is here, and it feels positively electric. It's enough to make "the walls come tumblin' down", like any great rock song should.
But this music is also nothing what you'd expect it to be. This song's protagonist is not Johnny B. Goode in Louisiana, but Joshua in Jericho. And that's enough to make you rethink not just the history of rock and roll but the genre itself and the meanings it contains.
This isn't music of the quotidian, the vulgar, or the mundane; its concerns are nothing less than biblical in nature. What we have here is not the devil's music, but the Lord's. It's a soundtrack not to rebellion or revolution, but to reverence and devotion. These rollicking jamborees are all ultimately spirituals. And yes, I know the interwoven history of gospel and blues and jazz in the twentieth century and how there's always been in all these forms a conversation between the sacred and the profane; and yet, I'm struck by how the two sides come together here, in what feels like the purest statement of rock and roll. For I hear no contradiction in this music. If anything, it feels like the proper expression of the form – rock and roll, as it was meant to be. For what could be more electrifying, more rousing, more ecstatic, than the revelation of a higher power? What better reason could there be to make everyone listening want to get off their feet and dance?
But this music doesn't just present us with a counterfactual alternate history. It also throws our actual history into relief. Because if this music has fallen through the cracks, it has done so in entirely predictable ways. Listening to this music, you can't help but notice that the person at the front of the band is a woman, and not only a woman, but a Black woman, and a Black woman who's not only a singer, but a bona fide guitarist (and damn fine one at that). So it's not exactly surprising that this is the musician that history has overlooked. If someone were going to be written out of the story of rock and roll, isn't this precisely who we'd expect it to be? Because what this music makes clear, listening to it now, is that there is nothing lacking in the music itself, which is as vibrant and dexterous and thrilling as any of its contemporaries or successors. But we never just hear the music itself. If this musician is not our image of a rock and roll frontman, if this music is not what we think of when we think of rock and roll, that's because we weren't actually hearing it, or weren't even listening. So let's listen. Let's hear it. Let's let it show us what rock and roll was always supposed to be.