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Finding Warmth in a Raucous Affirmation

Sister Rosetta Tharpe turned "Up Above My Head" into a hit when she was a gospel star in the '40s, fighting off the song's sap factor — "Up above my head, there's music in the air / I believe there must be a heaven somewhere" — by turning the song into a raucous affirmation, punctuated by her gutsy guitar work. Frankie Laine, Al Hirt and Rod Stewart, among many others, all followed in those upbeat footsteps, but Ruthie Foster finds a different way to get the message across.

Foster opens "Up Above My Head" with a minor-key electric-piano riff, conjuring up Marvin Gaye's hypnotic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the '70s pop-gospel hits of The Staple Singers. Then comes the 43-year-old Texan's warm, down-to-earth voice, with its undercurrent of wistfulness shining through in the way she takes a word like "believe" or "somewhere" and cascades its syllables over a haunting run. In the meantime, the fuzz of the Wurlitzer and the soft echo of the background singers provide a warm counterpoint.

Foster's slow-paced version offers an intimate confession, tinged with pain yet somehow full of hope. The source of her faith seems just as mysterious as the music she's always hearing in the air, even without an iPod plugged into her ears. In other words, there's little false bravado in the title of her new album: The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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