By Anita Garner
These three women have much in common. The one pictured with a fan, bottom right, is my mother. Each of them, not far apart in age and born into poor families, sang church music in ways it hadn't been heard before and took a lot of criticism for it. They moved obstacles to make things happen by force of talent and conviction, strong will, and once in a while a skillfully applied dab of charm.
I've recently watched profiles of two of them. "Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia" and from PBS, "American Masters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Godmother Of Rock and Roll." Observing them at work brought familiar memories. Though I never met two of those ground-breaking women, our family heard much from mother about Mahalia and Sister Rosetta and we witnessed the one we were raised with displaying her own spine of steel, standing firm about every detail of her dream.
All three of them knew exactly what they wanted. Where did they get the gumption? The surety? The belief that the way they heard a song was the way a song was meant to sound, before anyone else sang like them? Each of them faced a combination of challenging circumstances: Poverty. Segregation. A recording industry that released only specific styles. Radio stations that didn't play their kind of music. Fern moved straight out of honky-tonks in the Deep South into marriage with a poor country preacher and still she held onto her style until congregations eventually embraced the way she sang songs about Jesus.
Fern didn't sound like a white woman singing church music. She sounded like a Black artist and her gospel was infused with something about to become rockabilly or rock and roll, whatever the world would name it next.
Mother moved circumstances around to get every situation as close to what she envisioned as possible, all of this with no money and no connections. My brother and I watched her chatting with musicians, asking them to change something they were playing. No detail escaped her. Before letting loose with a song, she conferred with announcers and radio hosts and MCs about the exact introduction she preferred.
This display of willpower from a person with no power still surprises, but maybe it shouldn't. Looking back at gatherings where our family was preparing to sing, I remember many times a musician would play something new, a changed tempo or a nice little run he'd thought up and Fern, employing both looks and charm, would place a hand on an arm, lean in a bit and compliment the player, then pause and say something like this,
"I like it. But let's just try it this way first and see where it lays."
"See where it lays" was Fern's version of "Bless your heart, but we'll be doing it my way." She was committed to singing a song the way she said it "came to her." Through the years she absorbed licks from other talented performers, of course she did, but they were always going to come out sounding like Fern.
Mahalia, Rosetta and Fern sang some of the same songs, "Precious Lord," "Strange Things Happening" and "Didn't It Rain." Mother said after her Nashville recording sessions in the 50s, her record company president wanted the first single from the album to be one of the spirituals recorded earlier by Mahalia and Rosetta. Mother reminded him they had an agreement that her first release would be an original, one of the songs she wrote. As a result of their battle, nothing was released. The album was shelved in the late 50s and she fought the rest of her life to regain her masters. She won. We have them. Numero Group now handles all her music.
Here are these three women singing their versions of "Didn't It Rain." Rosetta takes out after it on guitar. Mahalia just flat lays it out for us, her way. Sister Fern's having a great time with Hank Garland on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.