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Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Ancestral Rocking and Rolling Ain’t Through Just Yet

A Q&A with Gayle Wald

Cover design: Carol Chu. Tharpe photograph by James J. Kriegsmann.

She was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, and since then, her posthumous star shines brighter and brighter. Electric guitar diva Sister Rosetta Tharpe is getting the respect she deserves as the godmother of the hip-swinging genre, and now that Grammy-winner Lizzo is raving about her, you better listen. On top of that, a stage musical about her is making its way around the nation, which we wouldn’t have without Gayle Wald’s biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Wald has written a new preface for this year’s reissue of her book. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to chat about it and its translation from page to stage.

Christian Coleman: Sister Rosetta Tharpe has gone from being buried in an unmarked grave in a Philadelphia cemetery to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and being depicted in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic about Elvis Presley. And Lizzo has gone on record as a super stan. Do you think the world is finally catching on to how amazing Tharpe was?

Gayle Wald: Yes, it’s fantastic to see Tharpe getting all kinds of recognition, especially from young people and artists like Lizzo. I should also say that there are musicians and people in the gospel world who always cherished her, so the world is catching up with them.

CC: What are some of your favorite Rosetta Tharpe performances and what do you enjoy about them?

GW: I love Tharpe’s gorgeously recorded duets with Marie Knight. I love her 1944 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which still feels fresh. And, of course, there is her performance at Griffith Stadium in 1951, when she staged an audacious wedding concert and played electric guitar in a wedding gown.  

CC: Your biography of her recently got the stage treatment as a bio-musical. That’s so exciting! Is this the first time anyone has approached you about adapting it?

GW: This production goes back several years to a conversation I had with the director Randy Johnson. He was the first one to express interest in a stage musical. The first production of “Shout, Sister, Shout!” was in Pasadena in 2017, and there was a second in Seattle in 2019. Each time, the show has gotten bigger and better. 

CC: How did you get news that the stage production was happening?

GW: The pandemic was so hard on live theater, so it was great to learn last year that Ford’s Theatre in DC would be putting the show on. Everyone involved with the show knew there would be a third production; they just needed to figure out where. 

CC: How much involvement do you have with the production?

GW: I have been involved in peripheral ways, working with the producers Bev Ragovoy and Dawn Smallberg and talking to the phenomenal writer Cheryl West. Mostly, I have tried to stay out of the way and be a resource when the theater professionals need me!  

CC: Shout, Sister, Shout! was originally published in 2007. What does the reissue, featuring a new preface by you, mean to you now after her induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

GW: It’s really meaningful and I’m so grateful for Beacon’s support. I hated to think that people reading the book in 2023 might come away thinking that Rosetta Tharpe was still in an unmarked grave, as she was in 2007. The fact that her story has changed—is changing—is inspiring. In 2007, I called Rosetta Tharpe a “rock-and-roll trailblazer.” Now, on social media, she is the “queer Black woman” who “invented rock and roll.” 


About Gayle Wald 

Gayle Wald teaches American Studies at the George Washington University. Her books include Shout, Sister, Shout!It’s Been Beautiful, and Crossing the Line. Her essays on music and culture have appeared in numerous publications. She lives in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @gaylewald and at