All hail the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll! Sister Rosetta Tharpe developed her guitar playing style for use in gospel ministry and evangelism and had a recording and performing career from the 1930s to the 1960s. She is credited with influencing most of the early (male) rock ‘n’ roll stars . She also laid foundations for electric blues by using an overdriven, distorted guitar sound – here she is playing a very beefy-looking Gibson SG Custom.
‘Up Above My Head’ says that the ‘music’ of God is all around – if you can just listen out for it, you can sense God working and even speaking to you. But if you are having a hard time, it can feel like you are drowning and everything is getting on top of you. Many people in the Bible were all too familiar with that experience – as you can read in Psalm 69. Plenty of material for the Blues there.
I’m about to drown
Sinking deep in the mud
Getting swept under
by a mighty flood
So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here is a principal piece of evidence that indeed “God gave rock ‘n’ roll to you”. I hope you can hear that ‘music in the air’.
A white man sings a black woman’s song – written and first made famous by Clara Ward in 1951 then later recorded by Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin.
Musically, this is a departure for the band which normally plays in a rock / blues style a bit like early Rolling Stones, though this song clearly uses the strength of Gary Stringer’s vocal delivery. I wonder what it means to them – is is just a rousing tune, or does it touch their soul? Is it worship or just performance? Listening carefully it seems that the name of Jesus in the original lyrics has been deliberately left out in this rendering, although the religious clues are still there – ‘soul’, ‘man who made me free, who bled and suffered’, ‘hallelujah’.
As originally written, the song is pure black American gospel where the ideas of religious salvation – being converted or ‘saved’ – is mixed up with the black civil rights struggle which itself looked back to the emancipation of the American slaves. So the song is built around thanks for liberation and a bright future hope ultimately in heaven, or symbolically the New Jerusalem – described in the Bible in the book of Revelation 21:1-7.