Editors Matt Delmont and Murray Forman Introduce Upcoming JPMS Issue, “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on Television”

by Mike D'Errico on July 15, 2013

Building on the diverse and engaging blog posts in this series, we are excited to introduce “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on Television,” a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies (forthcoming September 2013).  The four essays in the special issue will be previewed on this website over the next two weeks.  Norma Coates focuses on television producer Jack Good who, despite being largely unreferenced in music and television scholarship, was an almost Zelig-like persona, influencing televised popular music in both the UK and the US through the 1950s and 60s. Kristen Galvin analyzes Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a dynamic, chaotic, irreverent community TV program that was geographically and culturally situated at the nexus of several emergent art and music scenes. New York’s status as an important zone of cultural production also emerges in Kelly Kessler’s historical analysis of the Broadway/television juncture, in which televised Broadway productions offered the nation a new mode of access to the performances of “the Great White Way.” Tim Anderson considers how, since the late 1990s, music supervisors have come to play an increasingly important role in placing music in television programs and new media venues. Taken together, the essays in this special issue highlight how music has been crucial to every era of television, providing profitable content, pioneering new televisual technologies, exposing viewers to dynamic and pleasurable sounds and images, and fostering debates over the visual presentation of race, class, gender, sexuality, and youth.

By way of introduction, we would like to focus briefly on a specific televised performance—Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s appearance on TV Gospel Time—that broaches a number of the concerns at the heart of this special issue: the relationship between local sites of production and national broadcast networks; the importance of music television audiences; the shifting aesthetic and economic demands of music television production; the visuality of music television performances; and the centrality of YouTube and other online video sites to engagements with the history, present, and future of music television.

African American singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe is familiar to many IASPM and JPMS readers, but her performance of “Up Above My Head” on TV Gospel Time is likely less well-known. Originally broadcast in the early 1960s, the recording of Tharpe performing “Up Above My Head” is archived at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and is available on YouTube.  TV Gospel Time premiered in 1962 and featured many of the biggest names in gospel music during its four-year run. At its peak, the 30-minute show was broadcast nationally to over 40 television markets (Grevatt, “And Now Gospel’s Popping”).

In addition to highlighting an understudied television program, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s performance of “Up Above My Head” on TV Gospel Time calls attention to the vitality of televised musical performances and to the camera and staging techniques producers used to convey their energy to television audiences. For instance, numerous extant clips of Tharpe’s televised performances record her tendency to look into the balconies of the theaters and studios where she performed, surely taking in the lights and stage rigging above her or registering the spatial confines of a broadcast studio. In specifically gospel contexts she also gazes upward, as if her voice is pitched for the heavens, and in the case of this particular song the gesture references and further reinforces its key lyrical theme. Television directors were evidently familiar with Tharpe’s performance style, positioning cameras above the stage, perhaps on risers, in the balcony, or, as with “Up Above My Head,” on an elevated dolly. When Tharpe throws back her head with a smile and belts the song’s chorus, this production detail has the impressive effect of aligning the viewer’s perspective with that of the Almighty.

Yet, despite the effectiveness of its production, the episode is not without its technical flaws. Is it our contemporary vantage, with over 50 years of TV viewing experience since the show’s original broadcast, that draws our attention to the moment (33 seconds into the performance) when Tharpe is momentarily cast in shadow while the silhouette of a roaming boom crosses the stage beside her? We can never really know whether or not these production foibles were noticeable or relevant to contemporaneous viewers. The musical mix is also muddy, and while we may listen on mediocre computer speakers today, it is difficult to imagine that it was much better on an early 1960s TV set (Frith 279). The audio quality may interfere slightly with the acuity of Tharpe’s ace guitar playing, but the sound isn’t so poor as to overwhelm the backup band that is killing the session, especially the piano that swings with a hard boogie rhythm and punctuated arpeggios. Here, TV Gospel Time served as a crucial purveyor of the sacred and the secular.

Offscreen musical accompaniment was a longstanding television norm by this stage, as TV producers focused the cameras—and the audience’s attention—on key performers and celebrity artists. We might say that the screen can only hold so much, and “Up Above My Head” is an exercise in visual excess, especially once the choir shuffles forward. Tharpe does not explicitly acknowledge the choir, but she is almost absorbed as they slowly encroach upon her. The choristers do not sing, however, instead constituting a dynamic, sensational presence, bedecked in robes and clapping enthusiastically (in medium shots and close-ups). Yet, from a slightly different vantage, they might be regarded as mere props, a backdrop that moves as Tharpe occupies center stage and center screen.

Encountering Tharpe’s 1960s performance from TV Gospel Time via YouTube in the 2010s offers just one example of the points of connection between the history of popular music on television in the broadcast era and the contemporary appearances of popular music on screens in the “post-television” era. Despite their lack of historical context, the presence of advertisements in their interfaces, and the dubious copyright status and subsequent instability of many of their recordings, YouTube and other online video sites have become important repositories for music television history. As such, video websites offer valuable resources for teachers fortunate enough to have the necessary classroom technology to share their materials with students. When teaching Gayle Wald’s important biography on Tharpe, for example, the aforementioned YouTube clip helps students to see what made Tharpe such a captivating performer, and also provides visual evidence of the generic instability between gospel and rock and roll. The clip also offers an occasion to discuss with students the importance of other sources in studying the history of music television, as well as how sources like newspapers and magazines, photographs, archived documents, and oral history interviews can be used to better understand audiovisual recordings. As it happens, the user who uploaded Tharpe’s performance of “Up Above My Head” to YouTube in 2006 encountered the video in a “Rock on Television” class at Columbia College Chicago (RoboAnt). The video has over one million views (as of March 2013) and recent viewer comments suggest that PBS’s American Masters documentary on Tharpe, The Godmother of Rock and Roll (2013), led many people to the YouTube video. With millions of music-related videos available instantaneously on a proliferation of screens, it is easy to overlook the ways in which eras of televised music continually intersect—a contemporary broadcast television documentary draws renewed attention to a YouTube clip of an obscure 1960s television performance. We hope that the essays in this special edition work in a similar vein, uncovering little-known programs and performances, and shedding new light on important moments in music television history.

Works Cited

Frith, Simon. “Look! Hear! The Uneasy Relationship of Music and Television.” Popular Music 21.3 (2002): 277-90. Print.

Grevatt, Ren. “And Now Gospel’s Popping Into Pop Field.” Billboard 8 Jun. 1963: n.p. Print.

RoboAnt.  “[I’m mentioning Sister Rosetta Tharpe clip in article & would love to hear you how you first came across it] it was like most folks in the film Amelie but then again in a Rock on TV class at Columbia College Chicago & I got a copy of it.” 13 Mar. 13, 10:12  p.m. Tweet.

Wald, Gayle. Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon, 2007. Print.

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