“You would become so enthralled with it, it was just, I don’t know the word to say for it, but she was very spiritual and very good.” This quote from Camille Roberts (21) showcases the incredible way Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a prominent gospel singer and guitarist, and her music, could make you feel. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock and Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald is a stimulating biography about the life and career of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an influential and groundbreaking musician in in the mid-20th century. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a gospel singer and guitarist who adeptly integrated blues, and even rock and roll, guitar playing into her rich gospel singing. Through this biography, Wald gives the reader an account of Sister Rosetta’s life and career. This was a musician who was creating an identity for herself as an influential guitarist and gospel singer, yet, as Wald notes in her introduction, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her music was largely forgotten by the public after her death in 1973. Most notably, in addition to giving the reader an account of her life, Shout, Sister, Shout! explores Rosetta Tharpe’s career through the context of both gender, and race. Through these lenses, the reader can truly see what in influential woman Sister Rosetta Tharpe was. While I feel that Wald’s claim of Rosetta Tharpe being an influential part of the rock and roll movement was under supported, there was no doubt that Rosetta was a virtuosic musician who did impact the music industry in her time, and her story deserves to be told. To this, Gayle F. Wald does great justice.
This book opens on the birth and upbringing of Rosetta, or Rosabell, in Arkansas in the 19teens. Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Rosetta, or “Rosie” as grew up singing in church and with her parents, both of which also possessed musical talents. When she was still young, she and her mother moved to Chicago and joined the Sanctified Church. Here, Rosetta began playing guitar and singing in church, and where she gained recognition. People had never seen or heard gospel music being played this way by such a charismatic young woman. Shortly after, she was touring the east coast of the country playing her guitar and singing gospel music in a variety of churches.
The details of her career are easy to follow in this book, and are outlined for the reader chronologically. The main portion of this book focuses Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s career, and the various avenues in traveled. After touring many churches, Rosetta got an offer to sing at a night club in New York City. She took this offer, and for this brief time, began singing not only gospel, but blues as well. While this was popular in New York City, some of old fans in the Sanctified Church were displeased that Rosetta would do anything other than play anything other than religious music. Ultimately Rosetta returned to her roots though, and continued to play gospel music- but she always added her own flair with her mesmerizing guitar playing. For a great while, Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded albums and toured the country with accompanying acts, and while she was popular among her fans, she was never quite as popular as other musicians of her time. When recording and performing in America was no longer bringing her success, she traveled to Europe and found a new fan base for a time.
Equally notable to the details of her career was the way Gayle F. Ward presented Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s life and career through a feminist lens. Frequently throughout this book, Wald would include a quote for one person or another who suggested that Rosetta played well not only “for a woman” but also “for a man.” At the time, women weren’t frequently seen playing the guitar to accompany themselves, and those woman who did accompany themselves certainly weren’t seen with Rosetta’s talent. This is exemplified on page 21 with the quote from a childhood friend of Rosetta’s. It says, “…See, most of the times it’s the boy. Most of the time, as I said, the boys would be with the guitar and the drums, and the girl did the singing.” In addition to reminding the reader how interesting it was that Rosetta played the electric guitar as she did, at a time when woman were doing no such thing, this book also explores the relationships in her personal life through a feminist lens as well. Rosetta had three husbands throughout the course of her life, and while Gayle mentions all three in this biography, she did not emphasis them. They were described as decent, but not great people, and Wald makes many mentions to the notion (whether grounded or not) that these men, and many others, were after Rosetta for her money or fame. On the contrary, the female relationships in Sister Rosetta’s life were given a great deal of attention throughout this book. Rosetta’s relationship with her mother, as well as with her friend and fellow performer Marie Knight, were two such relationships that this book emphasized and focused on. While Rosetta had male friends and influences, many of whom got a mention in this book, it was clear this biography placed the emphasis on the women in her life. This, I think, was a conscious decision that represented her independent personality and depicted the strength of her as a female performer, all while crediting some of the other notable females in her life who inspired and encouraged her.
The other lens through which Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s life and career is presented to the reader is through race and the effect that it had on her life and career. Wald really highlights two elements of Rosetta’s career that were affected because of the race relations in America and throughout the world in the mid-1900s. One of these elements was Rosetta’s fan base. Most of her fans were Black and religious, but when she was first getting her start in Miami, then again near the end of her career when she was touring Europe, she had a white fan base. While Rosetta appreciated this recognition, it was often more out of spectacle or through the “veil of race” described on page 161 with the quote, “…fans tended to perceive them [Black performers] through a “veil” or race, looking upon black music as an index of black suffering as well as innocence.” The other element of Rosetta’s career that was affected because of racism in the United States was the way Rosetta was treated by society while she was on tour. In many states, she and her fellow Black performers were not permitted to stay in hotels or eat in certain restaurants because of Jim Crow laws. Due to this, when she was traveling in the early 1950s, Rosetta had a bus which she converted to be a dressing room, hotel room, and tour bus all in one. Accompanied by a white bus driver, strategically hired to be able to pick up food for the performers, Rosetta and her fellow performers would use this bus as an all-in-one makeshift mobile home, where they even perfected the art of applying makeup in the light of headlights from a different car.
This attention-grabbing biography sheds light on the incredible career of a female gospel singer who was unique and charismatic. Nuanced and informative, this Gayle F. Wald’s book explore’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s life and career within the context of gender and race, while still remaining informative and truthful. The way Rosetta played guitar was groundbreaking, and moving. It is a good read for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into the music culture of the 1950s and 60s, and learn more about a different kind of narrative than just a white male performer, or even a Black blues performer. Sister Rosetta Tharpe crisscrossed over many lines, boundaries, and communities, reaching small southern churches, as well as international audiences, and this book gives her the credit she deserves for living such an interesting life, and for the influences, both whether conscious or subconscious that she made on music.