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Female guitarists in contemporary music

(Released July 2009)

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  by Les Reynolds  


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Anderson's showcase of mostly male guitarists arguably points to her own skill level and confidence, as well as her total acceptance in a male-dominated area. In some ways, she could be seen as a pioneer. However, two others who preceded Anderson by decades can be labeled true pioneers: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) and Jessie Mae Hemphill (1923-2006)-both African Americans.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born Rosetta Nubin in the small hamlet of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe began performing at the age of only four (21). Over the ensuing years, she crossed the line between secular and sacred music by doing what many held to be unthinkable-performing inspirational music in nightclubs and concert halls backed by big bands and a witty stage presence. Her style offended the more conservative religious people of her day, although she remained loyal to her gospel roots. In fact, Rosetta was propelled during her formative years by her mother, Church of God in Christ (COCIG) evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, who played mandolin and preached at tent revivals across the South. A later move to Chicago allowed Rosetta to play blues and jazz in private while performing gospel in public. Honing her guitar skills, the young performer bent notes in the manner of jazz artists and picked strings in the style of Memphis Minnie. In the mid-1930s, she married a COGIC minister by the name of Thomas Thorpe (from which it is believed Tharpe was eventually misspelled). After she moved to New York City, her career blossomed. She continued to be both loved and hated, depending on the audience and style of music. The year 1944 marked Tharpe's first successful break into Billboard's "race records" Top Ten chart with the first gospel record ever to do so (22). In fact, she would accomplish this several more times in her career (23). An attempt at recording blues songs in the 1950s, all the while remaining with the church, proved a career downturn, however. Retreating to Europe, Tharpe gradually returned to the gospel circuit, although at nowhere near her former celebrity. A stroke in 1970 lost her the use of her legs and she died three years later at age 58 after another stroke. Her influence on notable musicians of pop music fame, such as Elvis Presley and Keith Richards, is legendary. Tharpe was inducted in 1997 to the International Gospel Hall of Fame and Museum (24).

Sister Rosetta Tharpe on YouTube
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, YouTube, Up Above My Head

Jessie Mae Hemphill (b. 1923) was yet another pioneering electric guitarist who combined her skill with songwriting and a vocal style specializing in the primal, northern Mississippi hill country blues tradition of her family and regional heritage. (25)

Hemphill's earliest field recordings, made by blues researcher George Mitchell and ethnomusicologist David Evans during the years 1967-1973, were not released. The first high quality field recordings of her music were eventually made in 1979 in Memphis, Tennessee, after Evans came to teach at Memphis State University (now called the University of Memphis). The school then founded its own recording label, High Water, to promote interest in indigenous music of the South. Hemphill's recordings on this label launched her recording career in 1980.

Hemphill was considered unique in country blues as a woman who was going against tradition by singing her own material while accompanying herself on an electric guitar and playing tambourine with her foot. Hemphill played an electric guitar in open D or open G tunings, preferring open D because of its versatility within the blues structure.

As Barbara Flaska writes in her article "The High Water Mark Keeps Rising,"

Her playing ignores the standard 12-bar blues progressions and relies instead on the open chord tunings and repeated riffs typical of the folk blues of her native Mississippi. Hemphill's guitar style is often described as idiosyncratic. Her open tunings are rhythm-powered and enhanced by an occasionally hypnotic drone. Her guitar style is overdriven, a little roughed-up and coarsely textured, but very natural sounding. There's not too much in the way of turnarounds or doubling back. Her songs are driven by a relentless rhythm, powered by a fierce strum - with a slide up one string and down the next for accent. Hemphill plays way up the neck, with both barred and fingered chords, and bends a string when the mood strikes her. The stomping guitar parts act as a rhythmic echo to the words and percussion. (26)
Due to the remoteness of her native North Mississippi region, much of this music had yet to reach a mainstream audience. Although folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded several of the Hemphill family members in the '50s, in addition to "Mississippi" Fred McDowell, most of the musicians of this region would remain unnoticed for years to come.

Hemphill suffered a stroke in 1993, which left her paralyzed on her left side. Her career was basically ended then, although she did manage a few appearances over the next decade as a singer and tambourine player. She died in 2006 from complications due to an ulcer.

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