Eight miles southeast of Cotton Plant, where state Highway 17 meets Interstate 49, a new sign was unveiled Friday afternoon honoring Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Arkansas native guitarist and singer who some credit with having invented rock and roll.

Aside from Tharpe’s “Walking Up the King’s Highway,” which emanated from a tiny Bluetooth speaker that dangled from the wrist of Cotton Plant Historical Museum Director Angela Ryland, no tributes were given and no ceremonious words were spoken about the legendary performer’s career or impact; how her showmanship and charisma allowed her to navigate the complicated divisions between churches and nightclubs, secular and sacred music, romantic relationships with men and women, black and white audiences. Perhaps no introduction was needed. After all, anyone who bothered to come stand on the side of the road in the middle of the Arkansas Delta on a sunny Friday afternoon just to see the canvas removed from a shiny new Sister Rosetta sign probably didn’t need to be convinced of Tharpe’s importance. In the gospel story parlance Sister Rosetta dipped in and out of, any expression of rhapsody would have been preaching to the choir.


Or, perhaps it was because this sign, like the one honoring Phillips County native Levon Helm that was unveiled near Marvel at 11 a.m. Friday morning, had been up for months.  The appearances of both were a bit of a surprise. Surprise, that is, on the part of Rep. Chris Richey (D-Helena/West Helena) and local musician Greg Spradlin, who shepherded HB 2179 through the legislature in late March, a bill that sought allowance for the Arkansas Department of Transportation to designate stretches of highway with signs to honor the legacies of Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Louis Jordan and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The legislation declares Hwy. 17 from Cotton Plant to Brinkley as the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Memorial Highway; a section of Hwy. 17 from Dyess to Wilson as the Johnny Cash Memorial Highway; a section of I-49 from Brinkley to Marvell as the Louis Jordan Memorial Highway and a section of highway from I-49 from Marvell to Helena as the Levon Helm Memorial Highway.

Just after the bill’s passage in early April, Spradlin, Richey and others began to talk about how to pay for the signs, since HB 2179 did not provide funding for them. But before the fundraising began, the signs went up. “There are strange things happening every day,” Tharpe once sang, and advocates of Arkansas’s musical heritage aren’t exactly inclined to question the happy mystery of who paid for the signs.


“The one thing about the recognition of Rosetta Tharpe,” said Cotton Plant Mayor Willard C. Ryland (husband of museum Director Angela Ryland), “is the fact that this memorial provides an opportunity for Cotton Plant and its tourism. My wife and I moved back here about 10 years ago, and I think this is going to set the pace.”

One such stride he’d like to see (and one of the reasons he cites for the city’s application for a seed investment from the Delta Regional Authority by way of its Delta Creative Placemaking Initiative) is a billboard on Interstate 40 — fewer than 10 miles away — pointing people to Cotton Plant. “Millions of people — people who are tuned in to music history — would jump off the highway,” Ryland said.


“If anyone would put Cotton Plant on the map, it’d be Sister Rosetta,” Angela Ryland said. “And this is just the start,” she said. “This is just the beginning.” Her silver SUV was  outfitted with door decals that read “COTTON PLANT, ARKANSAS: BIRTHPLACE OF SISTER ROSETTA THARPE.”

On that note, here’s a statement from Spradlin, post-ribbon cutting, on the spirit behind a bill that proved to be a rare moment for optimism in the last legislative session.

One of the greatest contributions our country has given the world is music that was borne from the sounds of those who struggle. More specifically, what Arkansas contributed was the combined sounds of poor black and white people that eventually would become rock and roll.

I’m so proud to finally see Arkansas recognize its legacy of creating some of the icons and architects of a gift that changed the world. Music will save your soul when nothing else will. There are millions of people throughout the world who for decades have turned to Arkansas voices and sounds, whether they realized it or not, to get them through the night or down that lonesome highway. While sports figures dating back to the early 20th century have long been celebrated and memorialized in our state, I feel like my heroes — Sister Rosetta, Levon and Louis Jordan — who are appreciated (even deified) elsewhere have gone without recognition in their homeland. We honor our state sports heroes and we should, but no matter how fast or how far someone has thrown a ball, I can scarcely imagine that it has ever transcended space and time to carry the same weight as those voices who bring comfort and celebration like no other.

I hope this is just the beginning … Sonny Boy Williamson? Charlie Rich? Glen Campbell? Albert King? Hopefully, more to come … .

— Greg Spradlin