Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, on a rainy day in the North of England:

On that same 1964 British tour, a 15 year old fan by the name of Robert Plant went backstage. Sister Rosetta was so impressed with his voice and his looks that she invited him onto her tour bus. He said no.

When I heard Sigrid Hausing on Desert Island Discs this week, choosing the gorgeous Robert Plant and Alison Krauss cover of Sam Phillips’ songSister Rosetta Goes Before Us, as one of her ten discs, I thought how beautifully circular 50 years of time can be.

No horses in the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us video, sadly.  But listen for the way Alison sings the many ng sounds in the song: things, happening, standing, long and lookingShe rests a soft millisecond longer than expected on each final ng, making us notice the rounded elasticity of the sound as we relax into her voice. The ng sounds balance the repeated soft sounds of again and alone, bookending the lines:

Of course, Alison Krauss didn’t make a calculated decision to pay attention to the ng sounds in the lyrics. As she began rehearsals, and started feeling her way into the mood and the music of Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, caressing those ng sounds will have felt natural and right for the song. If it felt right she’ll have kept doing it.

The sounds are all there in the lyrics for Alison to use. And use them she does. The music leads her. Her conscious mind stays out of it.

If you’re less of an experienced singer than Alison, or not a native speaker of English, such things may be less automatic. If you’re going to sing a cover of Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, the swooping and dipping ng sound will help you to colour the mood of the song.

The song is loaded with soft consonant sounds: the smooth of music and the of above. The vowels are light and floatyday, hear, sky, my, echoes, tonight. They complement the shifting, klezmer-type melody.

To get technicalSister Rosetta Goes Before Us is written in ternary form (AABA). The contrast between the third verse and the other three is important. The third verse is peppered with hard, cracking consonants: broken, darkness, cross, lost, too much. Broken is the hardest to ignore when you sing. You can’t smother the cracking sound of that central k. Broken is onomatopoeic.

Your listeners will notice the ternary form difference more if you establish the first two verses as places of smooth melancholy and then ‘come home’ to the same gentle sounds in the final verse.

Alison doesn’t overplay the sharper consonants in the third verse. She sings them lightly, but crisply, letting the chipped consonants get on with their work: to subtly communicate emotional disruption.

When you sing it, relax. Don’t overplay the soft sounds, or the hard sounds. They’re so perfectly balanced through the verses that you’ll unsettle them if you pay any word too much attention. Let them be.

Sing Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us softly, warmly, but resolutely, and the sounds hidden in the lyrics will favour you.

By the way: if you’re a Sister Rosetta fan, you’ll notice that Sam Phillips laced Sister Rosetta’s own words into her songUp above my head, I hear music in the air, there’s strange things happening every day:

© Sing Better English, 2016


5 thoughts on “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”

    1. She is. It’s surprising that she’s been a bit forgotten. I suppose, if somebody makes a good film about her, she might get pulled back into people’s memories. She deserves it.

      I agree – the coat’s great – practical for English weather and English railway stations.

      Did you like her Up above my head?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I just want to thank you. I’d heard of her before. Perhaps I’d seen a sound bite clip of her in a documentary about some other players here and there, but I don’t recall ever seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe perform. I just spent the last few hours listening to one video after another and watching one of the documentaries about her life and music. How did I miss her before now? Thank you. Indeed, there is music in the air. What a gift to all of us she was, and remains to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kathryn, Thank you for visiting and commenting. Yes, indeed. I hadn’t heard of her either, until I happened to hear ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’ as a choice on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ and began burrowing for information to write the post about the song.

      I like the ‘completeness’ of the idea that Robert Plant, as a gangly teenager, impressed Sister Rosetta enough to be invited on tour with her, and that he and Alison Krauss, so many years later, using the fame of his own career in music, carried Sister Rosetta forwards in time and into public consciousness with their beautiful version of ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’. It added poignancy to the song for me. Time is a daisy chain.

      I’m so glad that Sister Rosetta continues to sing out in your life. You might enjoy the BBC radio programme of ‘The Lost Women of Jazz’ ( 18 months of hard work and fish and chips by Janine Jones and Hannah Loy to track down the women in question. Their article about it is worth a read:

      Keep sharing Sister Rosetta – voices live on when they’re enjoyed by humans who never heard them live. We’re lucky that voice recording is such a taken-for-granted technology within our own lifetimes!

      Best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

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