A crowd forms to line up for a performance by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Music, music history, and generational waves of white supremacy

I grew up listening to Elvis and mostly white artists. And over the years I’ve learned a little about the way white supremacy made Elvis a star while Black performers who created the genre of Rock and Roll were never fully recognized by the dominant white culture.1 2

Recently I learned that Chuck Berry was influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t recognize her name. 3


Reading about Sister Rosetta Tharpe I’m reminded of an ongoing conversation with my partner about the way dominant culture has a way of boosting people with status, and dampening the significance of the lives and accomplishments of people who don’t.

My partner’s interest in art history, particularly of women, has revealed to her a kind of generational dampening effect of women’s achievements. This has a sort of compounding quality to it, because of the numerous signal dampening mechanisms.4

The more generations that pass by, the more obscured women’s lives are, by waves of patriarchal interests. It’s a kind of entropy fuelled by misogyny.

A white woman painting in the early 20th Century who had success making abstract art, for example, would, with each generation of art lovers and historians, slowly disappear from the dominant cultural memory.5 6

In the case of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the effect is compounded by whiteness. Despite the effects of white supremacy at the time, she was popular and successful. But her life and accomplishments, and her music, have been made invisible, at least to me, by waves of oppression, and my own limits.

I’m thrilled to be learning about Rosetta Tharpe now.

  1. I’m pretty much the opposite of a music buff. I do like music. But for context, I once drove from Halifax to Calgary without turning on the tape deck or radio. That was many years ago. These days, I’m a little more oriented towards podcasts and audio books.
  2. Now I can look back at conversations I had as a young person and understand a little better what people were telling me. One friend explained to me once that Elvis was a Chuck Berry impersonator, but I just nodded along and didn’t really get it.
  3. More about Sister Rosetta Tharpe on Wikipedia.
  4. The failure to include women artists in textbooks, especially those produced by male authors, editors, and art historians, is just one such mechanism.
  5. https://www.runningpress.com/titles/danielle-krysa/a-big-important-art-book-now-with-women/9780762463794/
  6. See for example Georgiana Houghton, Hilma af Klint, or Emma Kunz, who have all been ignored by so many art historians that it’s become a dogma of modern art history that Kandisky was the first abstract painter.

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