Before I started reading ‘Shout, Sister, Shout’ I’m ashamed to admit that I knew almost nothing about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, except that she was important, influential but ultimately overlooked by music history. In this biography Gayle F. Wald, a professor at George Washington University, explores her subject in an academic but accessible style. Such respect and consideration of this remarkable woman and her music career has been long overdue.
The childhood sections of the biography are brief, partly because of the absence of any written history from Rosetta herself. What we do learn is that Rosetta began playing music aged three and was proficient on guitar by age six, playing regularly in church services. Her mother saw the potential in her talent and moved her from Cotton Plant, Arkansas to the bustling metropolis of Chicago in order to further her career. From there she began touring on the gospel circuit, honing her skills as a performer through her teenage years.
Rosetta’s career was built on her performing gospel music in a distinctively original style, unlike many of her contemporaries she was a better guitarist and performer than technically gifted singer. Wald also explores how Tharpe’s crossover to perform for secular audiences divided her from the gospel community. Rosetta’s first records were released on Decca and her emotive style immediately connected with the public.
Wald then covers the successful eras of Tharpe’s career which saw her becoming the toast of New York and a hit with the troops during the war. There is also a discussion of some of her famous fans like Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, although I would have liked to read a little more on Rosetta’s influence on the musical style of the day and how this has evolved over time.
The most interesting chapter of the book for me discusses how in July 1951 Tharpe became the first woman to headline her own stadium show. In order to attract a big enough crowd her promoters decided they would combine the show with Rosetta’s wedding ceremony. The only slight problem was that Rosetta wasn’t even engaged at the time. Seven months later Rosetta had found herself a man called Russell Morrison and they were married in front of 22,000 people. Rosetta entertained her own guests and there was a full program of performers. It is quite a remarkable moment in music history (if you haven’t read the book you can read a short extract on the wedding here).
In her later years with the rise of rock and roll, Rosetta was less and less popular in her home country, playing to bigger audiences in the U.K. and Europe. Her famous Manchester train station concert of 1964 is covered in the book ( footage of this performance on YouTube perfectly captures her spirit and energy). As Wald writes ‘Rosetta made memorable recordings but the essence of her gift and her art lay in her ability to communicate with an audience.’
Rosetta died of a stroke on October 9th 1973. Many people came to her funeral, but she did not gain the send off someone of her calibre deserved. Blame was placed at her husband’s feet for not appropriately organising her finances and honouring her legacy. Her guitar was believed to have been sold for $250 and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
Reading this book reminded me much of the story of how Alice Walker paid for a gravestone for Zora Neale Hurston, effectively bringing her literary legacy back from the dead. Walker explained, ‘We live in a society as blacks, women, and artists, whose contests we did not design and with whose insistence on ranking us we are permanently at war. To know that second place in such a society has often required more work and innate genius than first, a longer, grimmer struggle over greater odds than first…is to trust your own self-evaluation in the face of the Great White Western Commercial of white and male supremacy.’ Rosetta too knew her talent and her music was equal and even superior to any man.
So in answering the question as to why Rosetta was forgotten, Wald explains that history itself failed to understand her, since ‘Rosetta was neither white nor male’ and ‘rock and roll…has long been associated with masculine prowess and male musicians’. Sadly, it remains ever so.
Thankfully the simple act of publishing Rosetta’s story has done much to revitalise her legacy and honour her work. Firstly in 2008 a fan Bob Merz, a writer and publisher based in Pennsylvania saw Wald discuss the book and was horrified to discover Tharpe had no gravestone. He organised a fundraising concert and raised money for a suitable memorial.
A theatre production inspired by the biography has also played and toured, raising further awareness of Rosetta’s music. And this year she was finally inducted into the Rock Hall of fame, with a tribute sung by a Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. To say such accolades are long overdue barely scratches the surface of what she’s owed.
Wald’s work, in remembering and retelling Rosetta’s history, is nothing short of heroic.
If you have read the book or are a fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe please let me know your thoughts on this amazing woman and book in the comments or on social media.
June’s book club choice will be Linda Ronstadt’s memoir ‘Simple Dreams’. Please read along and return here on June 14th for a discussion of that one.