Shout, Sister, Shout!
By Gayle F. Wald. Beacon, $25.95.
Nothing says rock & roll rebel like the image of a female holding an electric guitar. Gospel artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973) wasn’t a rock & roller per se, but Tharpe was one of the first musicians to amplify her ax in the mid-’40s. She had a rock & roller’s flair for publicity, duckwalking onstage à la Chuck Berry (but sideways so the audience couldn’t look up her dress), getting married at a sold-out show in an outdoor park, and playing the mischievous kid sister to Mahalia Jackson’s Somber Earth Mother.
Wald does right precisely where other books devoted to gospel music go wrong. Rather than dwelling on the conflict between the sacred and the profane (a tired topic that critics love to chew on), Ward simply tells the story. Tharpe herself didn’t think twice about contradictions; even though she was spreading the Lord’s word, she knew full well that reverends cannot preach to the converted. She was not above playing in secular venues. Yet when someone once suggested that she go rock altogether, she hesitated, fearing that the fickle pop audience might move on to some other trend the next year. It’s ironic considering the gospel crowd was already doubting her sincerity. Tharpe didn’t always color inside the lines, but her art became an important part of the landscape. And with this new biography, Wald has finally given Tharpe her due. —James Porter