Saturday, January 29, 2011

Strange Things Happening Every Day: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Graham Parker

"There's something about the gospel blues that's so deep the world can't stand it," gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe once pronounced. In the Forties, Tharpe was quite the fiery performer who could play a steel-bodied guitar like Chuck Berry and swing her hips like Elvis Presley. She often captured in her recordings the persuasive force of gospel blues to the degree that you could comprehend the power it held and why the world couldn't stand it. But, by 1944, Tharpe was herself wavering between the sins of the secular world and the promise of God's kingdom. So she gave voice to those struggles in her rollicking single, "Strange Things Happening Every Day":

On that great Judgment Day
When they drive them all away
There are strange things happening every day.

The view she offered us was no less apocalyptic than most gospel blues like Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere," or Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night," only Tharpe sounded ecstatic. She told us that even if you could never fully comprehend God's will, it might still be experienced and accepted through the mystery of miracles and salvation. After all, strange things do happen to mankind every day:

If you want to view the crime
You must learn to quit your lyin'
There are strange things happening every day.

In Tharpe's song, she gleefully submits to the transcendence that faith offers her (where the skeptic might be interested only in the idea of transcendence). Some thirty years after Tharpe declared her salvation, an angry young singer-songwriter from Surrey, England, named Graham Parker questioned that outcome with the same zeal that Tharpe pronounced in hers. It was in a song called "Don't Ask Me Questions." In the mid-seventies, Parker wrote and performed romantically tough R&B in an era that spawned punk. Partly inspired by Van Morrison's fiery work with Them, Parker married the fury of punk with the black soul music that ran in his veins. "Don't Ask Me Questions" was the concluding track of his phenomenal debut album, Howlin' Wind (1976), and it brought his collection of heart-on-the-sleeve barbed-wire rock & roll songs to a menacing conclusion.

"Don't Ask Me Questions" is about one fervent soul who rails at God's handiwork. The song opens with Parker's band, the Rumour, establishing a dramatic blues rhythm so startling, you're almost relieved when they shift into a bouncing and catchy ska arrangement. But Brinsley Schwarz's stinging guitar lines don't allow the listener any relief though its sound is both awesome and arresting. Parker rants his displeasure at God while the music tells us that Armageddon is not far behind. Schwarz's punctuated notes are so sharp that they sweep the singer along like a broom with teeth. The speaker, meanwhile, is disgusted because his faith in God has brought him into a hideous collusion with evil:

Well, I stand up for liberty
But I can't liberate
Pent up agony I see you take the first place
Well, who does this treachery?
I shout with bleeding hands
Is it you, or is it me?
I never will understand

Hey Lord, don't ask me questions.

The singer's complicity makes it painfully difficult for him to make sense of God's plan, to the extent that he finally sees Judgment Day. But he wishes he could avoid it:

I see the thousands screaming
Rushing for the cliffs
Just like lemmings into the sea
Who waves his mighty hand and breaks the precious rules
The same one must understand who wasted all these fools.

Parker sings like a man trapped under the moral weight of each line. If Tharpe is carried by the power of her revelation, Parker twists the vowels, even spits them out, never finding comfort. By the conclusion, Parker grunts and growls, periodically shouting disbelief, as the rhythm section carries his bleeding carcass off into the next life. Yet "Don't Ask Me Questions" comes at us with the same gospel force of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's tidal wave. Only Parker's song is an expression of total horror in which he raises urgent questions about what constitutes faith, about whether faith matters, and why that terrifying question is often etched in torment and human iniquity.

If Tharpe surrenders with passion to God's plan, Parker's defiance is equally forceful with its own spiritual transcendence. Like Herman Broder in Issac Bashevis Singer's novel, Enemies, A Love Story (1972), Parker needs God to exist in order to defy both him and our desperate need to have faith in a benign deity. "Don't Ask Me Questions" is as deeply felt a spiritual statement as any great gospel number even as it lays waste to the foundation of the music's own history. There are indeed strange things happening every day.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening Every Day":

Graham Parker's "Don't Ask Me Questions" from Howlin' Wind:

A searing live version of "Don't Ask Me Questions" from a 1977 Graham Parker and the Rumour concert where the band brings down a curtain on the world:

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. He will also be facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University beginning on February 13th.

1 comment:

  1. And I thought I was the only one who thinks GP merits serious intellectual attention. There's a new movie coming out soon called Don't Ask Me Questions....should be pretty good. Personally, IO think the later stuff is much much better and that GP is the great artist of our time...but that's just me.