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Allison Russell on the “Mother of Rock-and-Roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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Yola, Cam Franklin and Allison Russell at Newport Folk’s Once and Future Sounds (photo by Dean Budnick)

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Allison Russell received three Grammy nominations last week for music from her powerful new record, Outside Child. Her song “Nightflyer” was nominated for Best American Roots Music Performance and Best American Roots Music Song, while Outside Child is up for Best Americana Album.

Russell who also tours and records with her husband JT Nero in Birds of Chicago and is a member of Our Native Daughters (with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla) curated the Once and Future Sounds headlining set at the Newport Folk Festival’s Sunday 2021 Folk On event. Russell spoke about Outside Child as well as Once and Future Sounds in a Parting Shots interview that ran on the back page of Relix’s September issue (and also online).

A portion of that conversation, which does not appear in the piece, touched on Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  In June of 2022, Yola—who just received two Grammy nominations herself—will portray Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s musical biography Elvis.

Here are Russell’s thoughts on Tharpe:

It’s going to be so powerful to have Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s legacy restored. It should never have been taken for granted, but for it to be acknowledged—and for more people to know about it—is such a beautiful thing.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is, undisputedly, the mother of rock-and-roll. She came from a gospel background, but she invented modern electric-guitar playing. She played the electric guitar as its own distinct instrument, with the first use of distortion, showcasing the expansiveness of that sound. Every single guitar shredder owes a debt of gratitude to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

When she was in Memphis, a young Elvis went down to the Black side of town to hear her music, and she invited him up onstage. She also invited Little Richard to a show and helped him out at the beginning of his career—just think about how many people he’s influenced. So she was the prime influencer, the foundation of all of it. That’s why we call her the mother of rock-and-roll.

But, back then, there were two worlds. And there was only so far you could rise if you were a Black artist at a time when white artists were doing the same thing. They were making the money and enjoying all the fame.

I’m thrilled that Yola will be playing the role of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the Elvis biopic, and I’m hoping that a Sister Rosetta Tharpe biopic will follow. We also need a Josephine Baker biopic, an Eartha Kitt biopic and so many more. Those stories need to be elevated, uplifted and centered in the same way.

It’s interesting to look back and realize how easy it is to erase someone important. But, it’s also easy to correct that once you realize what has happened. That’s what’s going on now, and I’m so excited about it.



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