Songs sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe like "This Little Light of Mine" were used to further the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The origins of these songs can be traced to gospel music, but once the songs were popular, they belonged to everyone. As the civil rights movement grew in the 1950s and '60s, singers changed the lyrics of these widely known gospel songs to reference their struggles. These new versions were known as "freedom songs."
"They are simple melodies that can be sung by a small group or a large group," says Robert Darden, a gospel music historian and professor at Baylor University in Texas. "And the lyrics are composed in a way that the names of who they are protesting against can easily be inserted. They can be personalized and set to a place."
Music historians agree that Rock N’ Roll was born between the church and the nightclubs in the 1940s by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was a master Blues and Jazz guitarist, powerful gospel singer and great performer. She had it all and was playing the music that would later be called Rock N’ Roll before Chuck Berry, Elvis or Little Richard. She influenced all the them! It was Tharpe, the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, who turned this burgeoning musical style into an international sensation.
“This Little Light of Mine” was originally known as a beloved children’s tune, recognized around the world. But it’s also a spiritual, which was transformed by the nation’s civil rights movement into an anthem of power. And the song has the same impact in today’s times, where demonstrators still leverage its message to push back against injustice.
The image of Sister Rosetta Tharpe on these pieces that I painted and designed is based on live video footage of her performing “This Little Light of Mine” at a festival in 1960.
Excerpt from NPR on the history of the Freedom Songs like "This Little Light of Mine":
Ask Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris, and she'll tell you plainly: You can't just sing "This Little Light of Mine." You gotta shout it:
"Everywhere I go, Lord, I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!"
On a Monday morning, Harris' powerful voice fills the small church right next to the Albany Civil Rights Institute in Georgia. She's showing them how she and her fellow Freedom Singers — a renowned quartet that raised money for student activists during the civil rights movement — belted out songs to get through dangerous protests.
A muscular version of "This Little Light of Mine" is the emotional high point of Harris' presentation: a unifying affirmation that gives the crowd a taste of that feeling from the 1960s. She says the song helped steady protestors' nerves as abusive police officers threatened to beat them or worse.
The live video footage below is Sister Rosetta performing “This Little Light of Mine” at a festival in 1960.
Watch this video from the Rock N' Roll hall of fame explaining why Rosetta Tharpe was Inducted.
Read more about Rosetta Tharpe in this NPR article.
Read more about This Little Light of Mine in this NPR article.