Gayle F. Wald, a professor at George Washington University, is the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in 20th -Century U.S. Literature and Culture. She wrote the liner notes for a critically acclaimed 2003 Rosetta Tharpe tribute album. Wald lives in Washington, D.C. Read more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe at www.shoutsistershout.net.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was gospel’s first national superstar: the musician who, beginning in the late 1930s, took the sounds of the “Good News” music then developing in black churches to popular stages and Saturday-night audiences. Rosetta Tharpe had honed her skills as a singer-guitarist on the southern Pentecostal tent-meeting circuit, which she traveled with her mother, the evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, but her ebullient personality and masterful showmanship translated well to such prestigious New York nightspots as the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. Her defiance of church strictures against engaging with the “wordly” world made her an outcast in some Christian circles, but it also made her a trailblazer and the most important popularizer of gospel before Mahalia Jackson.
Like many musicians, Rosetta Tharpe struggled to stay professionally viable as musical styles and industry allegiances changed. “Sister Rosetta” (as she was known in the church) was a force to be reckoned with in the 1940s, when she had hits such as “Strange Things Happening Every Day” and (with fellow singer Marie Knight) “Just Above My Head” and “Didn’t It Rain.” In 1951, more than 20,000 fans paid good money to attend her wedding at a baseball stadium in Washington, DC, where she entertained the crowd by playing electric guitar in her wedding finery. By the 1950s, however, as record-buyers gravitated to rhythm and blues, she was reduced to playing small gigs and was dropped by her longtime label, Decca Records. Her career was boosted in the 1960s by a series of successful European appearances (especially in England and France), and when Rosetta died, in Philadelphia in 1973 from a massive stroke, few people—in or out of the gospel world—seemed to notice.
Today Rosetta Tharpe lies in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s Northwood Cemetery, a casualty of short memory spans and, perhaps, an ongoing inability—even now—to reckon a female gospel musician from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, one of U.S. popular music’s most forceful innovators. Thanks in part to fans like Bob Dylan, who has showcased her on his popular satellite radio show, Rosetta Tharpe has become a minor sensation on YouTube, where her dazzling guitar moves, charismatic singing, and even a pre-Chuck Berry duckwalk amaze viewers. Notwithstanding this and other recent accolades—a 2003 tribute CD featuring the likes of Joan Osborne, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, and Sweet Honey in the Rock; a 2007 induction into Blues Foundation Hall of Fame—Rosetta has never quite gotten her due. The unmarked grave is a potent symbol of that neglect.
A concert at the Keswick Theatre in suburban Philadelphia on January 11, 2008 (which Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell has proclaimed "Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day") promises to pay tribute to Tharpe and, in the process, do some fundraising to finally get her that gravestone. It features Philadelphia stalwarts and gospel greats The Dixie Hummingbirds, the legendary singer Odetta, and Rosetta’s old partner, Marie Knight, now embarked on her own resurrected gospel career. If you haven’t seen ’Birds lead singer (and original member) Ira Tucker get down on his knees to sing, you’re missing an essential gospel experience.