In July 1951, flamboyant singer-guitarist Rosetta Tharpe turned her third wedding into a gospel-music spectacle, staged at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Little memory or evidence of that event survives in D.C. today. There’s still a sliver of Park Road NW named Samuel Kelsey Way, after the preacher who performed the nuptials, but Griffith Stadium was demolished in 1965, and Tharpe died in 1973.
Now a Washingtonian has made a significant attempt to reclaim Tharpe’s almost-forgotten legacy: a biography titled Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Written by George Washington University professor Gayle F. Wald, the book argues that the Arkansas-born Tharpe influenced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Etta James, and many more.
Wald’s inquiry began almost a decade ago, after she was astonished by a videotape of a Tharpe performance. “I was surprised to see what I associated with rock ’n’ roll style and sound embodied in a middle-aged female gospel singer in a long dress,” recalls the 41-year-old author. “I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I know more about this person?’ I found out that I wasn’t alone in not knowing very much.”
Wald, whose specialty is African-American literature, admits she wasn’t sure at first that the book could be written. She wasn’t a trained historian, and Tharpe’s life was not well-documented. “There’s almost no archival record,” the author says. “She wasn’t someone who left us documents the way that historians would recognize them. She wasn’t a letter-writer. She didn’t have children. All of her husbands died before I started the project. Most of the people she worked with as a performer have passed away.”
The book’s description of Tharpe’s guitar technique is so avid that it suggests Wald is a player herself. That’s not exactly the case. “I had piano lessons as a kid, but I didn’t know what it was like to hold a guitar and do a blues progression,” she says. “So I took guitar lessons for a little bit to write the book. I was a miserable failure. But I did try to do it, because I thought, I really need to understand what this instrument is like.”
Although Wald says she’s “not interested in parlor games about the first rock ’n’ roll record,” her book’s preface does claim that “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” Tharpe’s 1945 crossover hit, “may well be the first rock-and-roll song.”
“What’s really astonishing about a record like that,” she says, “is that in it you can hear all the building blocks of rock ’n’ roll, except that you can hear them being voiced by a woman from the Pentecostal Church. You associate that sound and style and confidence, and even cockiness with a guitar, especially a Gibson, with a certain phallic masculinity.”
In other words, “Strange Things Happen Everyday” isn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record so much as it is the first record in an alternative tradition that’s still struggling to be recognized. “The significance of that song,” Wald says, “is that it helps us reimagine rock ’n’ roll history from a really different starting point.”
Wald discusses and signs copies of her book at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.