“Shout, Sister, Shout!,” a Biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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August 3, 2018

When Chuck Berry died, last year, the obituaries were filled with the neon names of sixties rock and roll mourning Berry’s passing and declaring him the father of the form. But history doesn’t work quite that neatly. Everything comes from multiple sources, forms of music not least. In “Shout, Sister, Shout!,” Gayle F. Wald tells the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), a daughter of the Sanctified Church, a sublime gospel singer, a songwriter, and a hot-guitar player who became known, with good reason, as the Godmother of Rock and Roll. Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University, published her fine biography in 2007, but it—and, more, Tharpe’s music—never quite got the attention it deserved. Wald will give you the story, from small-town Arkansas to the biggest stages in the country. Spotify, YouTube, and all the other obvious sources will give you the music: “Up Above My Head,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “This Train.”

If Tharpe is old news to you, my apologies, but you’ve got to hear her play and sing. Little Richard called Sister Rosetta his favorite singer as a child. Johnny Cash adored her voice. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes—they all loved listening to Tharpe and claimed her as an influence. Like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, Tharpe lived in the country between the sacred and the profane, the Word of God and the realm of earthly, and earthy, matters. In the late fifties, the early stars of rock started hearing Tharpe sing “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and it knocked them flat. “Say, man, there’s a woman that can sing some rock and roll. I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she’s singing rock and roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis told Peter Guralnick. “She jumps it . . . I said, ‘Whooo.’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

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