Sister Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973 when I was two years old. 39 years later, I am listening to her for the first time in my life.
Shout Sister Shout is a wonderful account of Tharpe’s life, but also gives insight and history into gospel music as a whole. I have grown up being surrounded by gospel music, but it was always contemporary. In reading this book, the only gospel names I recognized was Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, the former because my mother had a record of his, the latter because we learned about her at school. But I never heard oldie gospel tunes on the radio; they’d play R&B from the 50s, but not gospel. (It is the same today of contemporary Christian–no oldies.) I didn’t even know there were different types of gospel.
Tharpe had an amazing life, and she had an AMAZING mother. To be a black single mother and a traveling evangelist? That took guts to do in the 20s and 30s. It’s easy to see where Sister Rosetta got her ambitious spirit from. But what blows my mind is how great a guitarist she was. Some criticism of this book has been that it’s hard to describe Tharpe’s playing in words; it is much better heard and seen. Considering, though, that we live in the age of the internet, it wasn’t hard at all to google her on YouTube and listen along. It makes for a better multimedia experience.
And dare I say that Tharpe and Marie Knight’s version of “Didn’t it Rain” is absolute MAGIC?
Wald does a good job in weaving history and the culture of the times into Tharpe’s narrative. In some ways, it also gave me more insight into what it meant to be a black woman during those times, and how Tharpe worked her way around racism with a loving smile, but also a business savvy to be admired. Her choice to buy a bus so she didn’t have to stoop to the indignity of being turned away from white-only restaurants? Brilliant. And I like how we get this picture of Tharpe who truly believed in her faith, but also whooped it up, so to speak.
Along with this, I was reading the biography of Memphis Minnie, another black female guitarist who played the blues. It was very interesting to compare the two women–while Minnie had no interest in expanding and completely focused on the blues, Tharpe constantly looked to reinventing herself; though she mainly stayed within the gospel genre, she also dipped into the blues and even did folk for a while.
The epilogue did feel like Wald was overstretching a bit, waxing long on the fact that because Tharpe didn’t have a gravestone, it could be considered a metaphor for the fragility of life, yadda yadda yadda. But then again, she mentions how quickly it seems that Tharpe was forgotten after her death, and I do have to agree to that. Rock and roll owes a lot to her legacy. Four guitars out of Five, and I guess I’ll have to wait to get to heaven to tell her she has a new fan.