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Didn't it Rain

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an American gospel singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. Born on a cotton plantation in 1915, she became gospel music's first great recording star. Known as "the godmother of rock and roll" She was an early influence on, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Her career peaked in the 1940s.

By the 1964 her career was in decline, she was broke, and in poor health. But when Mick Jagger cited her as a seminal influence, Granada TV decided to bring her to Manchester to record a TV show. As far as I know, Sister Rosetta never kept a diary, but if she had, this is how she might have recollected that trip:

Didn't it Rain


Oh my dear lord I never thought I would go to England. But Granada said they would pay all the expenses and organise the flights. But first of all I had to get a passport. That was harder than you think, because to get a passport you need a birth certificate, and like lots of children who were born on plantations at that time, my Mom never got around to getting me one. But the church intervened with the state department, and they persuaded Johnny Cash to write a letter of support to State. Johnny's from Arkansas like me, and his mom and dad were dirt poor too; he knows how fortunate he's been and likes to give others a helping hand. God bless him.

So my passport arrived and my agent got in touch with Granada. Thy advanced me the money to buy a new Gibson guitar, and a few days later we flew to overnight from Idlewild to Manchester. I say Idlewild but it's been renamed John F Kennedy, did you know that? His poor family. I still miss him and I'm sure you do. I'd never been on such a long flight before, and I was worried that the change of time zones would cause my diabetes to flare up. But I was fine, if a little tired for the first few days.

In Manchester the immigration people, the hotel staff and all the people we met at Granada were so polite and welcoming, we were treated quite differently to the way that colored folks are spoken to by officials here. But the accents! Some of them were so hard to understand! But I got used to it, you have to don't you?

Manchester is a big city, about the size of Chicago. All the buildings there are jet black. Covered in soot from the mill chimneys. This place is where all the cotton that my Mom and Dad picked was sent to be processed. To spin cotton you need a damp climate and oh my lord they found the right place there. It didn't stop raining from the day we arrived until the day we left. And it was supposed to be Spring!

And I was told that I'd be singing in the open air, in a disused railway station can you believe it? The audience would be sitting on one platform and we would be performing on the other one, that had been done up like a sharecropper shack. Or perhaps I should say that it had been done up like what a scene builder in Manchester thinks a sharecropper shack looks like. There sure were no wanted posters next to the front door of our shack in Arkansas but there were here.

So I had no decision to make about what my opening number should be. I've been singing "Didn't it Rain" in Church since I was six years old, and this must have been the place that the old negro spiritual singers had in mind:

Oh it rained forty days

And it rained forty nights

There was no land nowhere in sight

God send the angel to spread the news

He haste his wings and away he flew

To the East to the West

To the North to the South

All day all night how it rained how it rained

Cousin Joe Pleasence and I arrived on the platform in an open-top carriage pulled by a black and white horse. I was wearing a thick woollen overcoat that I'd bought the day before. The audience was nearly all young white folks - can you believe that? - and they were huddled together wearing raincoats. The applause as Cousin Joe helped me down from the carriage was so loud that it could have come from a much larger crowd. When I watched the film recording I released that as I stepped down I said "This is the most wonderful time of my life." It sure was. I'm too ill to travel now, and I'll probably only ever get that one stamp in my passport, but I'd love to go back to Manchester if I get well enough.

See and hear Sister Rosetta Tharp sing "Didn't it Rain" at Wilbraham Road Station, Manchester here:



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