A Sister Rosetta Tharpe Biography

Gale Wald has written a biography of gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe became well known for playing her electric guitar while performing gospel music in secular night clubs. Wald talks with Tony Cox about the book.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

She wailed her songs; she pranced around the stage and windmilled her electric guitar. Rosetta Tharpe performed with all the charisma of a rock and roll star. But Sister Rosetta's music was gospel.

(Soundbite of song, "There Are Strange This Happening Everyday")

Ms. ROSETTA THARPE (Gospel Musician): (Singing) All we hear at church, people sing. They are in this holy way, there are strange things happening everyday. On that last with judgment day, when they drive them all away…

CHIDEYA: Sister Rosetta's heyday came just before the dawn of the rock era. Today, few know her name. But then biographer Gayle Wald came across old footage of the late gospel queen performing. NPR's Tony Cox spoke with Wald about the contributions of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

(Soundbite of song, "There Are Strange This Happening Everyday")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Everyday.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Everyday.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Everyday.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Everyday.

Prof. GAYLE WALD (English, George Washington University; Author, "Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe"): What blew me away was the image of someone playing the guitar with a sound and a style that I really associated with rock and roll, and not the person on the video tape, who was not young and not white and not male. And that was the initial impetus.

But the book really turned into an attempt to rethink the way that we imagine rock and roll history or kind of popular music history. And Rosetta Tharpe, this kind of unknown performer or unremembered performer, seemed an important way of beginning to ask questions about how we came to think of rock and roll guitar is the possession of, for example, white men.

TONY COX: The thing, though, that made Rosetta Tharpe so special I think, and you talk about in your book, was the guitar, and the way that she played that guitar. Talk about that.

Prof. WALD: What made her such an exciting guitarist was that she developed a kind of manner of playing that was exciting to look at as well as exciting to hear. In particular, she moved her body with the guitar, she did hotdog moves, she loved to show off, you know, what she could do with the instrument. And she developed a style of playing that involved a lot of finger picking. And when she moved to the electric instrument early in the '40s, she was able to kind of take advantage of that new technology.

And so, watching her play is as much a thrill as kind of listening to her sing or listening to her play. Because I think she really knew how to speak to the people at the back of the auditorium or the back of the church.

COX: You know, she was one of a number of black musicians who came up in the gospel tradition but who found themselves torn between church on Sunday and the juke joint on Saturday night as a place to play. It seems to me that she sort of opted to go non-traditional and was not put off by playing in nightclubs and sort of was drawn into that.

Prof. WALD: Yeah. You know, and what distinguishes her from so many people who did have to confront that parting of paths between the secular world and the sacred world, and confronted it in a painful way, was that she really tried to keep one foot in Saturday night and one foot in Sunday morning at the same time.

And that's what made her special and it's also what drew attracted controversy to her. So, she was the first performer of gospel music to bring that music to secular stages. And partly, she justified that ambivalence by saying, well, you know, if I put it at the Cotton Club, maybe there are some sinners in the audience who could use saving.

And of course that was a nice alibi. I think she loved an audience. I think she had ambition for her music to get out there. And of course this is in way of making a living. The gospel highway, as it was called, was not a place where people made a very good living and it was a difficult life. So those gigs certainly gave her a kind of security that she couldn't have dreamed of in her early days.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa")

Ms. THARPE: (Singing): I want a tall skinny papa.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) I want a tall skinny papa.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) I want a tall skinny papa.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) I want a tall skinny papa.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) I want a tall skinny papa, that's all I'll ever really need.

(Soundbite of song, "Singing in My Soul")

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible) in my soul. I'm gonna stand right, always stars are on…

COX: Mahalia Jackson would have been the complete opposite, wouldn't she, of Rosetta Tharpe?

Prof. WALD: Yeah. You know, in some ways, the opposite and some ways not. The opposite in the sense that Mahalia Jackson nearly constructed her career around her refusal to play in secular venues and refusing to do what was called blues music, which kind of would include any kind of secular sounds.

Rosetta Tharpe was distinct from that because she embraced the secular stage and she was always a gospel singer who, to certain ears, especially non-Pentecostal years, had a bluesy sound even when she was doing the most holy music. And she always had a kind of rhythmic approach to her music that people didn't necessarily associate with Mahalia, even though Mahalia could also do that kind of music.

(Soundbite of song, "Singing in My Soul")

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) You threw it across…

(Soundbite of song, "God don't Like It")

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) You said they don't cross whisky out and let you have a little wine. But listen up everybody, some got drunk, oh they, must be drinking moonshine. But God don't like it, I know I'm so glad he don't like it, I know and ain't you glad he don't like it, I know he's just (unintelligible) and a shame. When people get drunk every once a while just to speak (unintelligible) line. But as soon as they get…

COX: Let's bring our conversation to a close around this. Rosetta Tharpe is a person whose name is not one that is generally known in the larger black community outside of those who really follow gospel music closely. Why is that?

Prof. WALD: I think, you know, for a lot of reasons. One is that when she died, she was not quite embraced by the gospel world, which had moved on. She died in 1973 and her sound was not a contemporary sound. By 1973, she was considered old fashioned and most listeners, most black listeners and white listeners had moved on to the more contemporary, either more contemporary gospel or to soul music, or to rhythm & blues, and she was still doing "Down By The Riverside." So I think it was a question of repertoire and being perceived as old fashioned.

And she was also not necessarily embraced as a secular performer, and I think that has a lot to do with already the images that were accepted of secular performers. And one of the most amazing things that I discovered when I was doing my research was a review of a performance of hers in England in 1970 compared her to a blacked-up Elvis in drag.

And what's so astonishing to me was the fact that history was already being rewritten. When in fact Rosetta Tharpe had been influential to Elvis Presley. Here, Elvis Presley was the precedent and Rosetta Tharpe was an imitator. You know, with the way that we remember or forget is not just about the natural passage of time, it's also a social process. And forgetting takes place through discrete repeated acts of forgetting.

And one of the things that interests me is how that process of forgetting happens to especially black women performers in the musical world and, you know, how we can actually pay attention to how forgetting happens so that maybe it won't happen as much in the future.

COX: Gayle Wald, good job. Thank you very much.

Prof. WALD: Thank you.

(Soundbite of "Down By The Riverside")

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) I feel so bad in the morning.

Unidentified Man #3: In the morning.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing): I feel so bad in the middle of the day.

Unidentified Man #3: Day.

CHIDEYA: Gayle Wald is a professor of English at George Washington University. She's also the author of "Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock 'n' Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe." She spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of "Down By The Riverside")

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Down by the riverside.

Unidentified Man #3: Down.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Down by the riverside.

Unidentified Man #3: Down.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Down by the riverside lay down my heavy load.

Unidentified Man #3: Down.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Down by the riverside.

Unidentified Man #3: Do study.

Ms. THARPE: (Singing) Study in the morning. Study, no, no, no, study, no, no, no, no…

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today and thanks for sharing time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. And as always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on our Roundtable or in the rest of the show, you can call us at 202-408-3330. That's 202-408-3330. Or you can send an e-mail. Just log on to npr.org and click on Contact Us. And please be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name.

Tomorrow, black networking is working for the young and ambitious.

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