The Story Behind Shout, Sister, Shout! An interview with author Gayle Wald
Q: How did you first become interested in writing a book about Rosetta Tharpe?
GW: When I first saw a videotape of Rosetta, back in 1996 or ’97. I was blown away. I never knew that a woman had played guitar like that—with such authority, self-assurance, and sheer joy. I was even more surprised to find that the source of those guitar moves was a gospel performer from the Sanctified church.
Q:Was there a lot of information out there about Rosetta Tharpe?
GW: Not when I started writing. There was very little scholarship. Newspapers and music magazines were not a great source, either. In most cases, even in the black press, they tended not to devote much attention to gospel music, especially the kind associated with Pentecostals. And so often articles are recycled press releases, not “journalism” in the best sense. More recently, however, there has been more interest in Rosetta Tharpe’s music. For example, she was one of the few featured female performers in the Martin Scorsese-produced PBS series “The Blues.”
Q: So how did you go about finding out about Rosetta Tharpe?
GW: By listening to her music. By talking to anyone I could find who knew or remembered her-from friends and family members to fans and fellow musicians. The process was difficult—Rosetta Tharpe’s husbands had all died by the time I began my research, as had her mother. She had no children. Marie Knight, Rosetta’s performing partner, was an invaluable source, as were several of her friends. I was impressed by how willing most people were to talk about her. This was a woman who was clearly beloved. Not that people didn’t also have stories to tell—that’s always the case—but clearly lots of her peers in the gospel world felt that she hadn’t received her due.
Q: Did Rosetta Tharpe save lots of personal memorabilia?
GW: It’s hard to say. I’m sure she did, but the loss of her Richmond house in the late 1950s meant that a lot of what she might have been saving was lost. Her late husband, Russell Morrison, however, kept things she accumulated during the 1960s, after she moved to Philadelphia. She kept clippings from the British and European press, as well as posters, programs, and some letters from European correspondents. She held on to hymnals—likely ones that had some personal value to her—and some sheet music. Aside from an occasional Christmas card, she didn’t leave a large record of her own correspondence. Her guitars today are either gone or in the possession of collectors.
Q: What was the most interesting interview you did as you were writing the book?
GW: That is a difficult question to answer because so many people were so kind to me, and everyone had valuable and important memories to share. The generation that made the “Golden Age of Gospel” golden has all but disappeared now. As I talked to people—legendary DJ James “Early” Byrd, performers like Geraldine Gay Hambric, Delois Barrett Campbell, LeRoy Crume, Creadell Copeland, Ira Tucker—I felt like, here are people with “precious memories” (as the song goes). Most have not gotten the sort of attention they might have received were this a different world. But “ordinary” people, like Sam Scott, the oldest living resident of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, back when I interviewed him—also had important knowledge to share and were wonderfully generous with their time and insights.
That said, the interview that probably hit me the hardest was with Zeola Cohen Jones, a woman who knew Rosetta when she was a young performer at Miami Temple Church of God in Christ, in Florida . While we were talking, Ms. Jones told me about how whites, including many Jews, would come to hear Rosetta sing during performances at her church. When she told me that the white spectators, who were seated in the church balcony, had thrown money from the balcony-not just in appreciation of the music, but in appreciation of what they took to be the entertaining “performance” of the members of the church, I was shocked. I’m Jewish, so her memories made me feel ashamed for all of the different ways even other oppressed minorities can treat people they see as different. But then we talked about her surname—Cohen—and about the likely connection between her family roots and the history of Jewish slaveholders in the Carolinas. When I went to do a little poking around in the library, I found a slender book about this history—written by the rabbi who presided over my bat mitzvah ceremony! So it was a funny circle.
Q: How did you feel doing this work as an “outsider” in gospel culture?
GW: While doing interviews for Shout, Sister, Shout! , I was often aware of generational differences. I grew up in the 1970s, in the age of civil rights; most of the people who knew Rosetta grew up in the 1930s or ’40s—in a world defined by very different historical circumstances, especially racial segregation. I felt very privileged to be privy to others’ experiences. I also enjoyed attending COGIC services, thanks to the warmth of congregations in Chicago and Washington , DC , where I live. Even as an observer, I had a powerful sense of the sustaining power of Sanctified religion in people’s lives.
Q: What impresses you most about Rosetta Tharpe?
GW: Probably her bravery and her candor. Here was a person who had very little to fall back on—neither wealth nor color privilege nor gender privilege—and she was strong enough to follow—to carve out, really—her own musical vision. She suffered setbacks, but she was personally and professionally indomitable. And even as I respect her religious beliefs, I liked her irreverence. From all accounts, she would have been fun company.
Q: Do you see a Rosetta Tharpe “revival” in the future?
GW: That would be great, wouldn’t it? I wrote the book partly to put Rosetta back on the map of American popular music. We have such short memories. On the other hand, I didn’t want merely to engage in an act of “reclamation.” Rosetta Tharpe was one of the greats—and this is true regardless of anything my book says or does. What I wanted to do, at a deeper level, was to suggest a different narrative of 20th century African American and American popular music. If we acknowledge Rosetta Tharpe as a trailblazer, then what? How does our understanding of music—whether gospel, r&b, soul, or rock and roll—change? How does our vision of black women change?
Q:What is your favorite Rosetta Tharpe song?
GW: “Strange Things Happening Every Day” is such a great song. But I love to hear Rosetta and Marie Knight singing “Didn’t It Rain” and ” Beams of Heaven.”