Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

by Gayle Wald

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Long before "women in rock" became a media catchphrase, Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, she was gospel's first superstar and the preeminent crossover figure of its "golden age" (1945-1965). Everyone who saw her perform said she could "make that guitar talk."

Shout, Sister, Shout!


Long before "women in rock" became a media catchphrase, Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, she was gospel's first superstar and the preeminent crossover figure of its "golden age" (1945-1965). Everyone who saw her perform said she could "make that guitar talk."

Shout, Sister, Shout! is the first biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of popular musicians, from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt. An African American guitar virtuoso, Tharpe defied categorization. Blues singer, gospel singer, folk artist, and rock-and-roller, she "went electric" in the late 1930s, amazing northern and southern, U.S. and international, and white and black audiences with her charisma and skill. Ambitious and relentlessly public, Tharpe even staged her own wedding as a gospel concert-in a stadium holding 20,000 people!

Wald's eye-opening biography, which draws on the memories of over 150 people who knew or worked with Tharpe, introduces us to this intriguing and forgotten musical heavyweight, forever altering our understanding of both women in rock and U.S. popular music.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though Elvis, Ginger Baker, Keith Richards and Jerry Lee Lewis paid her tribute, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's vast contribution to American musical history has nearly faded away. With the publication of this entertaining and enlightening biography, Tharpe-who reputedly played her electric guitar "like a man," withstood failed marriages, racial and sexual discrimination plus economic hardships-should receive the recognition she deserves. George Washington University professor Wald (Crossing the Line) has knit together memories of 150 people familiar with Tharpe and her work. Wald's competent research provides readers with the larger historical framework within which Tharpe's contributions can be appreciated. Born in Arkansas in 1915, Rosetta Tharpe became a well-known child performer, honing her gospel guitar style in Pentecostal churches and tent revivals throughout the South. By the late 1930s Tharpe relocated to Chicago, made the life-altering choice of forsaking Pentecostal church performances and embarked on a secular career, eventually signing with Decca Records. During the 1950s Tharpe's career sagged due to changing musical tastes, but a well-timed European tour in 1957 reignited her career. Tharpe courageously cut across racial, musical and sexual boundaries, defying easy categorization, which may have contributed to her obscurity. Wald's biography of this unique performer will hopefully reawaken interest in her life and music. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"Sister" Rosetta Tharpe's (1915-73) name has fallen into relative obscurity, despite a successful career that spanned several decades. She was hailed for her distinctive musical innovations and crowd-thrilling performances and was a favorite of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and others. Wald (English, George Washington Univ.; Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture) has drawn from scores of personal interviews and eclectic source materials to chronicle Tharpe's humble beginnings in Cotton Plant, AR, and her rise to fame as an internationally acclaimed singer and guitar phenomenon who fused gospel, rock, folk, and blues into her own signature, groundbreaking style. Wald digs deeply into sensitive personal, cultural, and artistic issues to capture the essence of both the individual and the performer while deftly examining a variety of elements that impacted Tharpe's life and work-from the challenges of being an African American woman to the strictures of the religious environment that gave rise to her gospel sound. This candid and thorough biography will certainly appeal to those familiar with this accomplished performer and will inspire others to seek out her recordings. For circulating libraries as well as music and African American studies collections.-Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Guitar-wielding gospel grande dame gets her first full-length biography. Though Sister Rosetta Tharpe definitely had an impact on many rock guitarists, the book's subtitle is marketing sleight-of-hand. Tharpe wasn't a rock-'n'-roller-she was a holy roller, a Pentecostal shouter and refined picker who was one of the top sacred-music performers of her day. It's true that she see-sawed between the gospel and secular worlds: 1930s releases like "Rock Me" and "This Train" were church roof-raisers, but she was soon recording with Lucky Millinder's big band and playing decidedly ungodly venues like New York's Cotton Club and Cafe Society. She returned to the gospel road in the mid-'40s, and her career didn't recover until her embrace by European blues revivalists in the '60s; she died in 1973, at age 58. Sister Rosetta's fascinating experiences fail to come alive in this lugubrious narrative. Wald (English/George Washington Univ.) is madly in love with her subject and treats with rapture even such grotesque incidents as Tharpe's 1951 wedding before a paid crowd of 20,000 in a Washington ballpark. Though based on dozens of interviews, her work reads more like a full-length mash note than a carefully researched biography. The reader learns little about Tharpe's three husbands, even though the third-Russell Morrison-was her manager for nearly 20 years. Old rumors about bisexuality are mentioned, only to be quickly dismissed. Wald writes virtually nothing about how Tharpe learned to play or from whom, neglecting the historical roots of her dazzling guitar style. Nor does the author have anything to say about the essential, abiding conflict between Tharpe's sacred and worldly sides. Sister Rosettadeserves better than this sleepy, uncritical tome.

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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.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0984-0

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.

Meet the Author

Gayle F. Wald is a professor at George Washington University and the author of Crossing the Line. She wrote the liner notes for a critically acclaimed 2003 Rosetta Tharpe tribute album. Wald lives in Washington, D.C.

From the Hardcover edition.

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