Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story Of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Just last week, a press release for Michelle Shocked’s upcoming disc arrived citing Sister Rosetta Tharpe as one of Shocked’s greatest influences, calling her “the father — well, mother — of rockabilly.” Share that statement with the general public, and an overwhelming majority would say, “Who?” This biography from Gayle Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University, is an overdue attempt to remedy that.
The core story is one that’s been told many times before: An artist schooled in the gospel tradition enters the world of secular music, a branching-out that feels like betrayal to some and a natural progression to others. But from the outset, Wald makes it clear that with Tharpe at the center the story, it is anything but ordinary. As Jim Dickinson is quoted as saying, “A female gospel singer playing electric guitar in a spangled evening dress was pretty unique in 1955.” And, according to Wald, Tharpe had been doing that for almost two decades by the time Dickinson encountered her, bringing gospel “from the churches and street meetings…to the stages of New York concert halls, ballrooms, and nightclubs.”
Wald balances her perspective between being an academic and a fan. The former is reflected by twelve pages of source notes in the appendix, and by reconstructions of scenes that unfold from the Cotton Club to Scandinavia. As for the latter, Wald wrote the liner notes to the 2003 Tharpe tribute Shout, Sister, Shout!, and in this text she recommends Fern Jones’ The Glory Road, which features several Tharpe compositions.
The details of Tharpe’s 1951 wedding at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. — equal parts nuptials, concert, and publicity stunt — form a tale ripe for the telling. But Wald saves her best for when Tharpe’s story is winding down, most notably chronicling the spirit that kept a diabetes-ravaged Tharpe performing after the disease took one of her legs.
And after making sure Tharpe’s story is no longer untold, Wald uses an epilogue to discuss why you might not have known it and, even more importantly, why you should:
“Whenever a rock or gospel or rhythm-and-blues musician turns the amps up, we’re in the living presence of Rosetta, who made a habit of playing as loud as she could, based on the Pentecostal belief that the Lord smiled on those who made a joyful noise.”