Read an Excerpt
Shout Sister Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
By Gayle F. Wald
Beacon Press Copyright © 2007 Gayle F. Wald
All right reserved.
Chapter One COTTON PLANT (1915-1920)
This train is a clean train, this train, This train is a clean train, this train, This train is a clean train, ev'rybody's riding in Jesus' name, This train is a clean train, this train. Rosetta Tharpe
No doctor was in attendance when a black girl-child was born to Katie Harper on a farm just outside of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915. There were several white physicians in Cotton Plant, a relatively prosperous Mississippi Delta town about sixty-five miles west of Memphis, but no black woman would have bothered to call on them. The closest hospital was in Little Rock, more than seventy miles to the southwest, but even with the railroad, that was out of the question too. So Rosa, or Rosie Etta, or Rosabell-for she had many names before she became internationally known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe-was born on the grounds of the Tilman Cooperwood farm, where Katie Harper lived and worked. A midwife from the community was likely there to comfort and guide Katie when she gave birth to her first and only child at the relatively advanced age of thirty-two. The date of the birth was March 20, although no official certificate was issued; in those days, the only records country women like Katie kept were notes jotted down in family Bibles.
The girl Katie gave birth to was precocious from the start. It was said she began walking and talking before her first birthday. She had a gift of music in her, a God-given gift that she shared with her parents. Both Katie and her husband, Willis (or Willie) B. Atkins, a farm laborer, could sing-not in the manner of the trained vocalists who appeared at Cotton Plant's Francis Opera House, a room in a building on Main Street-but in the manner of black working people who sang for their pleasure, or at church, or as a distraction in the fields or the kitchens where they spent most of their waking hours. Like his wife, Willis Atkins had a clear, booming voice, the kind that "when he sang you could hear him across a field," remembers his grandson, Roy T. Scott.
Willis died soon after the second Great War, but Katie maintained that strong voice until 1968. Back when she gave birth, nothing would have been further from Katie's imagination than recording an album with Dizzy Gillespie when she was seventy-seven. And no wonder: neither Dizzy, nor modern bebop, nor LPs existed in 1915. Nor could Willis or Katie have predicted that their little girl, born into humble circumstances in the segregated South, would become gospel music's first national star and a pioneer of modern rock-and-roll guitar. Thirty years later, Rosetta would return to the area around Cotton Plant a bona fide celebrity in a fancy black roadster, thrilling the people there with her fine clothes, fistfuls of United States currency, and glamorous persona.
In 1915, however, these were fairy tales of a future beyond imagination. Back then, Willis and Katie raised Rosetta in the manner of all loving and well-intentioned parents of every station and background. They taught her to obey her elders, not to sass, and to remember the lessons she learned in church. As the cliché goes, children were to be seen and not heard-and such rules of conduct were particularly crucial for black children, for whom a careless word could spell mortal trouble. Unlike the state capital, Cotton Plant was never touched by the racial violence that rocked Arkansas in the early twentieth century, when fifty-four black people were lynched between 1910 and 1929. Yet that didn't mean that the black citizens of Cotton Plant could speak freely. As ninety-three-year-old Sam Scott, Cotton Plant's oldest living resident, recalls, "a young man come in, a white man, you had to say Mister to him." Rosie would have been taught much the same racial etiquette, as a matter of survival.
At the same time, Rosie grew up with music in the air. Both Katie and Willis taught her to use her voice to sing, and both set her the example of playing an instrument, Katie the piano and mandolin, Willis the guitar and the mouth harp (harmonica). The area around Cotton Plant had other young people who imbibed these values: Louis Jordan, the bandleader and jump-swing innovator, born just ten miles down the road in Brinkley, blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw, and gospel singer Ernestine Washington.
Rosetta didn't know her father for very long. By her sixth year, she and Katie had departed Cotton Plant without him to settle in Chicago, and by the time Rosetta reconnected with the Atkins clan living in Camden, Arkansas, in the early '50s, Willis had already passed away. According to Donell Atkins, Willis's son by his third wife, Effie, Rosetta "didn't 'preciate being kept away from her daddy, because when she came she tried to pick up all the literature that she could about her daddy." Although Willis's ten living children by Effie-five boys and five girls, in addition to the five infants who died early-possessed among them only a few photographs of their father, they gave them to Rosetta, out of sympathy and respect for her fame as a musician. She promised to give them back, but never did. Thus, Willis Atkins lives on only in the memories of his surviving children.
That makes it difficult to know much about Willis's heritage, Donell Atkins says. Willis's mother may have had the surname Newton, but Donell isn't certain whether "Atkins is a slave name" or a name Willis's father took from another source. Family legend has it that Donell's grandparents on his father's side ran away from slavery.
Willis's own personal history is clearer. Roy Scott, son of Willis's daughter Elteaser, says he grew up hearing that his grandfather had had three separate families, including his mother's and "Auntie" Rosetta's. Born in 1876, just before the end of the relatively progressive and hopeful era of Reconstruction, Willis Atkins was married first at age twenty-four, to a woman by whom he had two children; then to Katie Harper; and finally, after he and Katie separated, to Effie, a woman twenty-six years his junior. By 1930, Effie and Willis were living on a rented farm in Ouachita County, in southern Arkansas, where Donell and Elteaser were born. Census records indicate that Willis could read and write, and that his oldest child by Effie, a daughter named Leona, attended school. In addition to farming, Willis worked for the Pacific Railroad, both as a switch man and as a tie-cutter, and later helped build highways, doing construction from Arkansas to Missouri. Donell remembers his father as robust and compact, a John Henry figure who, even in his older years, would march off without ceremony into the fields to cut wood. "I seen him pick up crossties and throw them over his shoulder and take them somewhere and stack them."
To know what Willis Atkins looked like, you have only to look at Donell. "Everybody said I feature my daddy," he attests. "I feature him a lot." Elteaser, now ailing and on dialysis, agrees. "He was Donell height, about Donell tall," she says of Willis Atkins. "My dad was kind of low. Dark brown skin. Dimples in his jaw. Gray hair." (He was fifty when she was born.) He was also a devout Christian. "I never heard him sing the blues and I never seen him drink," says Donell. "He was a beautiful man," adds Elteaser. "He was real religious. He never whipped none of us. When things happened to us he took us on his lap and prayed for us and that was about it.... He did the best he could. He didn't have too much to give us but he gave us love."
Katie Harper's heritage might be lost were it not for a document that she herself acquired from the U.S. Census Bureau in November 1959, when she was seventy-six years old, possibly so she could obtain a passport to accompany her world-famous daughter on an overseas tour. Bearing the stamp of the Commerce Department, the document, glued to a piece of cardboard, identifies the Katie Bell Nubin, then of 5046 Aspen Street in Philadelphia, as the Katie Harper born in 1883 and living in 1900 in Princeton, Arkansas, in Dallas County, about 120 miles to the southeast of Cotton Plant. Katie's parents, Levi and Agness J. Harper, almost undoubtedly had been slaves; Levi was born in 1845 in Louisiana, to parents from Louisiana, Agness around 1842, to parents from Arkansas and Louisiana.
Like most black Southerners, they made their living working the land. The 1900 census taker noted Levi Harper as an "owner." If this is so, then Katie may have grown up in relatively prosperous circumstances, since the vast majority of black people in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were either tenant farmers, meaning that they rented the land but owned the crops they produced on it, or sharecroppers, in which case they owned neither the land nor the fruits of their labor. Levi is entered in the 1880 census as a "renter," so it's possible that, in the twenty intervening years, he and Agness and their children managed to acquire their own farm.
Katie Harper grew up in a world that had precious little time for anything but work. Levi and Agness raised a large family, in part because, once they could perform even the most rudimentary chores, children were valuable additions to the family workforce. In all, they had five girls, Sallie, Dillie (or Dilly), Katie, Hanna, and Emma, as well as two boys, Rufuss and William-the latter probably named for an earlier William who died young. Like her parents and siblings, Katie received little if any schooling. The census enumerator of 1900 notes that at age sixteen Katie, like her father, Levi Harper, could neither read nor write. By that time, moreover, Agness had died, perhaps from the physical strain of giving birth to William, who was then one year old. Katie and her older sister Dillie (Sallie had moved out and likely married) thus greeted the new century as household and farm workers as well as caretakers of their younger siblings.
How Katie Harper came to reside in Cotton Plant and how she met Willis Atkins are mysteries. Did she move there as a young woman, with other members of her family? Did she follow a husband, perhaps someone she married before Willis Atkins? Perhaps she migrated because she heard that good work could be found in a town that prided itself as "The Great Cotton Metropolis of Eastern Arkansas."
Cotton Plant once belonged to lands inhabited by Cherokee and other American Indians, who were forcibly removed after the formation of Arkansas Territory in 1819. As local lore has it, its name came from the plant that sprang up from the ground after William Lynch, a white man, "accidentally" dropped cotton seeds onto its fertile soil. A prosperous town grew up where Lynch's seed took root, but Cotton Plant declined in the late twentieth century. After the civil rights battle for school desegregation that raged in Little Rock in the 1950s, many of the young black people in Cotton Plant left to pursue their educations elsewhere, says Sam Scott. Like many other small towns across the country, Cotton Plant in the twenty-first century is in danger of extinction.
When Katie gave birth, Cotton Plant boasted a population of perhaps a thousand, with cotton farms, cotton gins, and a rapidly developing veneer industry that employed white and black men alike. Among the virtues of Cotton Plant noted by a 1905 version of The Hustler, a local newspaper, were its several Masonic lodges, its opera house, two banks, three hotels, a jewelry store, a shoemaker, a dentist, three lawyers, two white churches, and three "colored" churches. There was also a regular school system for white children and, for "Negro" children, the Cotton Plant Industrial Academy, originally a freedmen's school founded in the 1880s by the Presbyterian Church. "In a country like ours where two races mingle in business relations so freely, it is very necessary for both to be educated. This education must be both literary and industrial. Skilled labor is always in demand. A thoroughly cultivated literary mind is always the pioneer of industrialism," wrote The Hustler, in terms notably progressive for a racially mixed (approximately half-black, half-white) Delta town at the turn of the last century. "The school has given to the community around a different type of colored people, and it continues to rise higher and higher."
For the newspaper's white editors, as well as for many black residents of Cotton Plant, a "different type" meant businessmen like Nat Darby, the town's most prosperous black citizen; highly cultivated individuals such as Florence Price, a Boston conservatory-trained composer who gave music lessons in town; and members of a black middle class that drew from Cotton Plant's small but significant service economy. According to Gwendolyn Stinson Gray, granddaughter of Nat Darby and daughter of one of the principals of Cotton Plant Academy, many black people owned farms and businesses in Cotton Plant in the early twentieth century. For example, although their property lay outside of Cotton Plant, the family of Pickens Black had thousands of acres and three airplanes: one to dust the farm, one to lift cargo, and a third for the family's private use. Scott Barnes, a black citizen in nearby Forrest City, owned a rock quarry. Nat Darby was a farmer and builder who variously owned cotton gins, orchards and potato fields, a lumber yard, a planing mill, a commissary store, and a silent movie theater. Tilman Cooperwood, owner of the farm where Katie worked, was a black man. Their wealth didn't exempt these black families from segregation, of course; many lived in an area just south of town called Dark Corner. Nat Darby attended an African American church, belonged to a black Masonic lodge, and sent his children to Cotton Plant Academy. Participating in such vital black institutions, the Darbys and their social peers viewed themselves as models for and patrons to their less fortunate brethren. Like the Tilman Cooperwoods, remembers Gwendolyn Stinson Gray, they were "good livers," prosperous people "who knew how to survive on what they had and who shared things." Tilman himself was a particularly well established and resourceful man who owned a "pretty estimable piece of land." His interest "was not in standing in command over people," she says; rather, there was "interest in uplift." "The conditions were not the norms that you hear about.... When you were a sharecropper there you were part of the family." Sam Scott recalls much the same of the Cooperwoods: "They were the type that wanted you to look up and want the best things in life."
Most black farmers-the majority in Cotton Plant-didn't share the advantages of its landowning middle class. When Rosetta was growing up, the children of these families helped their parents tend to crops and animals and keep house; at best, they attended school seven months of the year: two at the height of the summer and five in the winter. So active were the many farms in and around Cotton Plant that Sam Scott remembers white cotton lint floating down Main Street at harvesting time. The Hustler, in the racially romanticizing terms of the day, waxed poetic about black laboring people: "For miles out from [Cotton Plant] in every direction stretches vast fields which in the fall of the year present the appearance of an immense blanket of snow. So white, so grand, so beautiful that but for the moving black people here and there who are eagerly grabbing the white, fluffy stuff from the bowls [sic] and placing it in sacks, one would think it a grand painting, the result of the brush of some master artist."
Sam Scott readily bursts the bubble of this fantasy of the happily laboring farm "Negro." Although the son of an educated woman, Scott spent most of his working life farming, and he vividly recalls what this entailed in the era before mechanization. "I can remember when people used to have but one mule ... they got one mule and eight or ten acres of cotton." The owner of the farm "furnished the mule, he furnished the feed, then you give him half of what you made." Each farm had a "riding boss"-"somebody to tell you what to do and everything, almost like [here he laughs] an improved slave."
On the other hand, he has nostalgia for rural life in the nineteen-teens: fond memories of eating fresh meat and potatoes roasted in hot sand, of enjoying family time ("We were educated but we just, we believed in good living, you know"), and of Sunday evening entertainments after church. "Old folks would take the bed down," he recalls, "and young people would gather in a room" where they would dance to the music made by someone playing piano or perhaps guitar. They did square dancing and a dance popular in the nineteen-teens called slow dragging, in which "couples would hang onto each other and just grind back and forth in one spot all night." "All night" in Cotton Plant meant until ten o'clock, early enough to give people a bit of sleep before Monday morning's rooster's crow.
Excerpted from Shout Sister Shout! by Gayle F. Wald Copyright © 2007 by Gayle F. Wald. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.