There are many lessons we can take from the artistry and story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but with her recording of “My Journey to the Sky,” it is best to begin with bodily appreciation rather than analysis. Before diving into this song’s history and significance, we invite you to fire up your Youtube, gather your loved ones around you, close your eyes, and feel the beauty and power of this singing in your whole body.
In the voices of Sister Rosetta and Marie Knight, we hear a fervent wish to ultimately see “that peaceful land,” but the desire is sung so beautifully that we are compelled to welcome that peace into our bodies.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is most often highlighted for her revolutionary guitar playing, which serves as one of the clearest illustrations of how the power and passion of gospel music was translated anew into secular musical settings, steering the course of popular music in the 1940s and 50s. Like Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta was fiercely criticized by many religious people for blurring or bending the lines between the two worlds.
Marie Knight is most-remembered for her association with the iconic Sister Rosetta, but was a notable artist in her own right. The two maintained a decades-long friendship even after Knight went solo and ceased accompanying Tharpe regularly onstage. According to the NY Times:
After joining forces in 1946 and touring together, [Knight] and Sister Rosetta released several call-and-response gospel songs for Decca that broke through to the rhythm and blues charts, an almost unheard-of feat. “Precious Memories,” “Up Above My Head,” “Didn’t It Rain” and “Beams of Heaven” established them as one of the top gospel acts of the era.
"My Journey to the Sky" was the flip side of the record featuring their much more famous hit, "Up Above My Head."
Anyone who has studied American music in depth learns early on that spiritual songs and gospel preaching had a profound effect on secular expression throughout the generations that forged American music. Even for those who do not share the Christian faith, it is vital to listen, appreciate, and ponder the expression of that faith in so much American music.
A musician who serves their community - rather than their ego - with the music they make will benefit in ways that neither money or fame can provide. In the spiritual songs of Black America, we witness a living institution that has proved vital to not only the survival, but also the thriving, of a people. In celebrating Sister Rosetta’s powerful expression of her feelings and faith, we wish to highlight the incredible power of communal music to sustain our people and culture - whichever religious beliefs we hold.
A search for anything about this song’s composers, Dorothy Austin & Virginia Davis, turns up a stunning dearth of information. Their song was published in 1944 and distributed by Martin and Morris Music Studio.
My Journey to the Sky
There's only one thing that I long for, when I reach that heavenly land To see my Jesus and His glory, as I go from land to land.
There's only one thing that I long for when I reach that heavenly land And I know, I know we shall see Him, in that sweet, peaceful rest, yes.
Without a mother, without a father We got to beat this journey by myself Heart-breaking pain, all left in shame But our journey, here along.
There's only one thing that I long for when I reach that heavenly land And I know, I know I shall see Him - in that sweet, peaceful rest, yes.
There's only one thing that I long for when I reach that heavenly land And I know, I know, I shall see Him - in that sweet peaceful rest.
Sister Rosetta and Ms. Knight recorded the song in the key of E flat, and so we share the chart below for those that would like to play and sing along in that key. See our Youtube Channel for instructional videos teaching the song in C Major.
Research about this song comes from wikipedia and the Reading Between the Grooves blog.