By Gayle Wald
Speculation is a risky but inevitably necessary business for biographers. When I was working on Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I made a decision not to stray too far from what I could verify from historical and contemporary sources (even while acknowledging that these, too, are imperfect).
So when confronting the question of what motivated Tharpe, a musician embedded in the sonic culture of black Pentecostalism, to record secular songs and perform on secular stages beginning in her early twenties, I chose to tread carefully. Maybe this young woman, whose childhood had been defined by pleasing others with her musical gift, craved the love of an even bigger audience. Maybe she wanted to do something so anathema to the godly reputation of her philandering husband, the Rev. Tommy Tharpe, that he would not come looking to drag her back to him. Maybe she really thought she could save souls in nightclubs filled with party people.
Some readers may have wished for clarity regarding Tharpe’s motivations for performing gospel for the “sinners” as well as the “saints,” or of putting her God-given talent to dubious uses, such as singing for British teenagers wowed by the sight of a woman shredding on an electric guitar. But I chose to honor her mystery.
But the heady news that Rosetta Tharpe will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Class of 2018, makes it feel okay to indulge in a bit of retrospective guesswork. Would Tharpe, who strived to please her church audiences to her dying day, have welcomed the news? How would she have felt about being nominated alongside a British heavy metal band called Judas Priest?
She would have loved it.
In her lifetime, Tharpe was far less concerned with what others chose to call her music than whether it moved them. Her formation in the Church of God in Christ taught her that music had the power to transport audiences, to take them “higher,” emotionally and even spiritually. In the few interviews that survive, Tharpe maintained that it didn’t matter whether “they” called it gospel or blues or rock-and-roll. Music had power no matter what name you gave it.
There are plenty of historical reasons to induct Tharpe into the Rock Hall—reasons that led me to call her a “rock-and-roll trailblazer” in the subtitle of my book. She was an early pioneer of electric guitar, and developed a dazzling showmanship that involved intricate finger picking and teasing, daredevil sleights of hand. In the 1940s, working with the Sam Price Trio, she made edgy, rollicking songs—including her signature “Strange Things Happening Every Day”—with rock-and-roll charisma. Her craft and larger-than-life personality have imprinted themselves on Who’s Who of late-twentieth-century musical illuminati.
But inducting Tharpe into the Rock Hall is not just an acknowledgment of her “influence”—a tag that seemingly allows her to enter on the coattails of more familiar names. It is also a recognition of her self-authored musical adventurousness, one that drew from the incomparably rich traditions of African American Christianity. It is a means of symbolically allowing these traditions to “enter” the Rock Hall with her. And it is a means of chipping away at the brittle boundedness of “rock and roll,” a phrase that still relegates women to the sidelines, even when they commanded the whole stage.
As imperfect as rock institutions can be, it’s nevertheless thrilling to see Rosetta Tharpe honored for her music. I can imagine her saying, with the practiced diction of a proud sister of the church, “Well, I don't care what they call it—gospel, spirituals, rock and roll. But it is about time!”
About the Author
Gayle F. Wald is a professor at George Washington University and the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and It's Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV. She was a consultant for the film Godmother of Rock and Roll. Wald lives in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylewald.