The Unsung Godmothers of Rock

Written by Aliyah English

Wrapping up Black History Month has made me reflect as a African American woman. Black History Month is a very important month for so many African Americans because it allows room for conversation about past and present contributions, accomplishments and social issues of African Americans. In the early 1900’s, African Americans were discredited from their contributions ,unfairly uncompensated and forgotten about because their race was seen as less than. This commonly occurred in the music industry, an industry in which, at the time, was profoundly unjust.

Fortunately, times have changed for the greater and although it still has its flaws, the music industry now recognizes and honors the individuals behind the music of the past and present. Let’s shine a light on the 3 African American godmothers who broke barriers to pave the way for the next generation of young African American female musicians.

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, best known for her song “Freight Train,” was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5th, 1893. During her childhood, she taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar. She reversed the instruments to make them easier to play left-handed. She saved up $3.75 to buy her first guitar. Due to her religious upbringing, she was encouraged to give up playing secular music. Later on in life, with a stroke of luck, she had the chance to turn a hobby into a professional music career.

While working at a department store in Washington, D.C., Libba discovered a lost child and returned her to her mother. The mother was American composer, Ruth Crawford Seeger. A month later, Cotten began work in the household of the famous folk-singing Seeger family. Their daughter, Peggy, saw her playing the family guitar and was amazed by her talent. Mike Seeger began working on recording with her and soon, she was touring and playing small shows in the homes of important political figures including former president, John F. Kennedy.

In 1958 Mike helped her release her first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes, in which she included her infamous song “Freight Train”. As she gained national attention, Cotten played festivals such as Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and the Smithsonian Festival. Her album, Elizabeth Cotten Live, was awarded a Grammy for the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording in 1985. She continued to tour until her untimely passing on June 29th, 1987.

Memphis Minnie was born June 3, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana. Minnie started playing banjo when she was seven years old but, got her first guitar at age 10. Although the average job of an African American woman was in farming and service, Memphis Minnie was never one to follow societal norms and she began to play on the streets of Memphis. One of Memphis Minnie’s first musical partnerships was with Willie Brown, who is is better known for his association with musician, Charley Patton. She and Brown began playing together around 1915 in Bedford, Mississippi. They mixed blues with pop tunes, her favorite cover being “What Makes You Do Me Like You Do Do Do”. She also played for dances and store promotions.

In 1929, she married another guitar-player, Joe McCoy, who was a good singer and guitarist. They were playing together in a Beale street barbershop when a scout from Columbia offered to record them in New York. Their first session was on June 18, 1929, two weeks after Minnie’s 32nd birthday. “Bumble Bee Blues” became the popular song from that session– so popular that Minnie recorded several different versions of it for different labels. In 1939, she married musician ,Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars, who would help her in her road to stardom.

As a working musician, Minnie’s guitar style evolved partly in response to the kind of places she played and the people for whom she played. Poet, Langston Hughes, saw her perform at the 230 club on New Year’s Eve in 1942 and was impressed by her sound. Over the next 16 years, she would release many singles including “Downhome Girl” until she suffered from a heart attack in 1957 and lived in a nursing home until she died on August 6th, 1973, at the age of 76.

Queer musician, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, (born Rosetta Nubin) was born March 20th, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Her love of music began when she was a child due to her father and mother being singers. Growing up in a church setting, she picked up the guitar at age 4 and would sing and play along with the choir. She quickly gained attention under the name “Little Rosetta Nubin: the child prodigy”. At the age of 6, she travelled with her mother as a part of a traveling troupe that performed across the southern United States and developed fame for being a young, female, African American guitar player.

In the mid-1920s, Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, Illinois, where she continued to occasionally traveled around the US to perform at church conventions. In 1934,Tharpe married preacher, Thomas Thorpe, and he bandwagoned on tours with her and her mother. On December 23, 1938, Tharpe performed in John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” Concert at Carnegie Hall. By performing gospel music in front of secular audiences, blues and jazz musicians , and conservative religious circles was unusual and controversial due to the mere fact of a woman performing guitar music was frowned upon. In the 1940’s, she recorded non-gospel hits like  “Shout Sister Shout,” “That’s All” and “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.” “That’s All” was the first record on which Tharpe played the electric guitar and would have an influence on Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

Tharpe spent the remaining two decades of her career touring Europe and the United States, primarily playing gospel music. In 1960, she performed with with James Cleveland at the Apollo in Harlem and also performed in 1967 at the Newport Jazz Festival. While on a European blues tour with Muddy Waters in 1970, Tharpe suddenly fell ill and returned to the United States. She suffered a stroke shortly after her return and, due to complications from diabetes, had to have a leg amputated.  Though she would go on to perform for a few more years, she suffered a second stroke and passed away days later, on October 9, 1973, at the age of 58, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Although these 3 iconic women have passed away, their legacy will never be forgotten. They continue to inspire many young women of color to not only play the guitar but, break barriers and move mountains by doing what they love.