In African American folklore, trains portend deliverance. They figure the promise of safe passage from here to there, pointing the way from conditions of constraint, perhaps literal bondage, to freedom or at least release. The trains of African American vernacular culture are also vehicles of time travel. To ride these trains is to journey toward an imagined future. Whether literal (the segregated rail cars that carried waves of southern migrants away from violence and poverty), cryptic (the veiled routes of the underground railroad) or metaphysical (the gospel train that is “bound for glory”), trains in African American tradition express a collective faith in alternatives to this place and this moment. However murky their destinations, they at least offer the assurance of movement.
From this vantage, Rosetta Tharpe’s Gospel Train is an aptly named album. It is a collection of old songs — old as in venerable but also old as familiar — that mark her “return” to the fold after several years of fraught experimentation for Decca Records, which had been trying to rebrand her for the R&B era. If Tharpe’s bold secularizations of Pentecostal church music (“My Man and I” for “My Lord and I”; “Rock Me” for “Rock Me in Thy Bosom”) in the late 1930s had laid the groundwork for this era, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” her 1946 hit with the Sammy Price Trio, crystallized its diverse energies, which drew from sacred and secular sources. Yet as is the case with many innovators, Tharpe had been in the music business long enough to see herself surpassed by those whom she had influenced. By the mid-1950s her career had stalled, rendering her an “oldies” act in a rapidly changing musical and cultural landscape. It was a landscape that had never been particularly hospitable to black women, let alone for one who played guitar.
As an album of gospel songs and spirituals, Gospel Train thus represented as a re-righting of Tharpe’s professional path via the repertoire of African American “spiritual” song. Many of its tracks are reworkings of material she had recorded in earlier years for Decca. Even the album’s title phrase called to mind to one of Tharpe’s earliest crossover hits, “This Train,” another song that used the railroad as a metaphor for the path to redemption.
When Tharpe had recorded her solo acoustic version of “This Train,” she was a 23-year-old newcomer to New York City, having left behind an inconstant first husband (the Rev. Thomas Tharpe) in Miami. She did not come to the city alone; at her side were her mother Katie Bell Nubin, an accomplished musician who evangelized for the Church of God in Christ, and her close friend, the gospel composer Roxie Moore. But she was, in a sense, very much on her own in pursuing a new professional and cultural identity as a female “swinger of spirituals.”
The phrase was not merely a catchy alliteration for advertising copy. It also contracted the two key terms of “From Spirituals to Swing,” the historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert organized by John Hammond and intended to showcase the range of African American musical expression for a progressive and culturally curious white audience. Hammond’s formulation was predicated on a notion of “the Negro’s” progress — from slavery to freedom, from Christian songs of sustenance to urban sounds of sophistication. Tharpe’s identity confounded his thesis of a linear march toward the future. Through her bluesy guitar licks and brave excursions into secular waters, she represented an assertion of black modernity that would not leave the church or the “old ways” behind.
Ever since her first, rapid rise to celebrity — within a year, in 1938-1939, she went from being a preacher’s wife to being a boldface star at the Cotton Club — Tharpe had been in search of artistically and financially fulfilling means of communicating her unorthodox musical vision. In the early 1940s, she muddled through a frustrating (and as she told it, exploitative) stint as the “girl singer” for Lucky Millinder’s big band — a gig that nevertheless landed her at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and on V-Discs recorded for U.S. troops.
In 1947, in the wake of the success of “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” she teamed up with the Newark-born singer and pianist Marie Knight, igniting a personal and creative collaboration that would define the most commercially sustaining and artistically satisfying period of her career. The partnership with Knight carried Tharpe through what was perhaps her most triumphant moment — a 1951 “Wedding Concert” staged before at least 15,000 paying fans at Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium. That the concert celebrated Tharpe’s third marriage, and featured her playing electric guitar in a wedding dress from center field, only demonstrated the power of her vision of straddling seemingly disparate realms of sacred and secular — and doing so in her own strange and spectacular terms.
The wedding concert marked a high point of Tharpe’s gospel celebrity, with Ebony magazine capturing its glitz and glory in a lengthy photo spread. But the following years offered Rosetta fewer opportunities for self-reinvention. The new R&B music, as exemplified by the early work of Ray Charles (who essentially recapitulated Tharpe’s gospel “crossover” moves for a new generation), was not only upending the recording industry, as risk-taking independent labels such as Atlantic Records threatened the hegemony of majors like Decca, but also drawing the sort of youthful audiences who would come to dominate popular music, crowding out more “mature” performers.
In the gospel world, the dominance of Mahalia Jackson, as heralded by her 1954 Columbia Records release The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer, meant a smaller audience for Tharpe’s more flamboyant aesthetic. Jackson’s close association with the civil rights movement as embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr. would only underscore the gap between Tharpe’s brand of “swinging spirituals” and forms of musical expression more closely calibrated to the demands of a new moment in the black freedom struggle.
Mercury Records offered Tharpe a welcome parachute after her Decca contract expired in early 1956, leaving her label-less for the first time in her career. Formed in 1945, Mercury did not have a gospel catalog, but it had garnered a reputation as a home for the new long-playing vinyl records and for jazz performers, including influential mid-century chanteuses like Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Sales of these women’s LPs had helped Mercury position itself as a serious competitor to Decca, and their success explains Mercury’s strategy of repackaging Tharpe for an audience of jazz record-buyers.
The label’s approach is illustrated in the cover photograph of Gospel Train, which pictures Tharpe in an elegant seated pose, her chin characteristically tilted up and her eyes gazing softly overhead. The hollow-body electric guitar that she holds is a visual reminder of the virtuosity that made some observers say that she could play “like a man.” But the image of Tharpe with her guitar is static and feminized, suggesting a performer more intent on displaying her freshly manicured red nails than showing off her famous moves. Most striking, she wears a strapless dress with a jeweled choker, an outfit that, together with the red polish, would have been out of place in a house of worship, even those as stylistically expressive as African American Pentecostal churches, which are here evoked by the figure of a gently glowing cross in the background.
As the image intimates, listeners who come to Gospel Train to hear Tharpe shred on its 12 tracks will have their expectations for the most part disappointed. The Tharpe of Gospel Train comes primarily to vocalize and only secondarily to play her guitar. But these same listeners will be pleased to encounter Tharpe supported on eight of the tracks by a crackerjack ensemble of players, including Ernest Hayes (piano), Doc Bagby (organ) and Panama Francis (drums), the latter of whom had been a regular on the Millinder bandstand. On four somewhat different-sounding tracks recorded on a separate date, she is backed vocally by the Harmonizing Four, a nimble quartet whom Tharpe knew from her time living in Richmond, Virginia. Along with the Rosettes, a Richmond-based female backing group that toured briefly with Rosetta in the 1950s, the Harmonizing Four had been on the stage (and in the wedding party) for Tharpe’s 1951 stadium extravaganza.
Gospel Train offers material to suit a variety of tastes. Although brief — the album in its entirety clocks in at 30 minutes — it ranges widely in mood and presentation. On tracks such as “Cain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down,” which features tasteful guitar licks by Ernest Richardson as well as Tharpe’s own guitar solo, she takes playful liberties with phrasing and timing. In contrast, on “When They Ring the Golden Bell,” recorded with Harmonizing Four, Tharpe approaches the material with “churched” elocution, rolling the first “r” in “sweet forever.”
Some of these selections reprise earlier hits in new arrangements. “Cain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down” recalls the solo version of the song Tharpe recorded in the late 1940s with Marie Knight and the Sam Price Trio. In contrast, the “Up Above My Head There’s Music In The Air” recorded with the Harmonizing Four for Gospel Train has a nimble sound that is quite different from the sinewy duet Tharpe produced with Knight. “Precious Memories,” a staple of Tharpe’s repertoire, is here presented in a bluesy arrangement with prominent piano accompaniment, echoing the work of Charles. And “99 1/2 Won’t Do,” a song favored by Katie Bell Nubin, who was known for expansive improvisations that created opportunities for profound spiritual expression, is here rendered in multi-track format — a technology Mercury had perfected — with Rosetta providing the response to her own call.
Ultimately, Gospel Train did not garner a great deal of attention in the United States, and Tharpe’s tenure with Mercury would be short-lived. But among listeners in Europe, who had been following Tharpe’s Decca career, the record was well received. If Tharpe was disappointed by Gospel Train’s reception, then, her sense of letdown could not have lasted long, since by the end of 1957 she had been invited by the British trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber to tour the United Kingdom. The enthusiasm of European fans for Tharpe’s blues-tinged gospel led to a new phase in her career, one that played out on stages in London, Manchester and Birmingham, as well as in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Juan-les-Pins and Montreux. The girl born in humble circumstances in Cotton Plant, Arkansas — the very name of which conjures small-town horizons — would spend a significant portion of the last 15 years of her life shuttling over the Atlantic between the Continent and her home base in Philadelphia.
Gospel Train may be heard as an annals of Rosetta Tharpe’s life and music, as well as a testament to the enduring power and elasticity of the sonic archive of African American Christianity. Even in its asymmetry — the at-times awkward juxtaposition of the sounds of the quartet tradition (via the Harmonizing Four) and that of the jazz ensemble — it is a compelling work that invites attentive listening. As the song implores: “Get on board, children / There’s room for many a more.”