By Laura Donnelly-Smith
Before there was Bill Haley, rocking around the clock, before there was Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and tearing it up on the guitar, before there were the Beatles and their lyrics and their haircuts—before there was rock and roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
If that name isn’t familiar to you, you’re not alone, said George Washington Professor of English Gayle Wald, author of the 2007 book “Shout, Sister, Shout: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
Ms. Tharpe, an African American gospel musician, became one of gospel music’s biggest stars and most celebrated guitarists, and inspired a diverse set of musicians who followed her. But because she enjoyed none of the privileges of white male musicians, she has remained relatively unknown to modern audiences despite the commercial success of her recordings. Now, Ms. Tharpe, who died in 1973, is the subject of a documentary film based on Dr. Wald’s book that will air on PBS’s “American Masters” on Friday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.
“[Rosetta Tharpe] wasn’t quite marginalized, but she was kind of ironically shut out,” Dr. Wald explained. “Like a lot of early influences, she was there at the very moment rock and roll emerged. Mostly white men inherited [rock] as a category, and benefited from it and represented it. It’s hard still today, even for people who know American music, to replace that image of a young white man who played loud guitar as a form of rebellion. The music industry, then and now, didn’t have a place for her.”
The documentary, called “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll,” was produced by British filmmaker Mick Czaky, who has done several other films on musical performers. He contacted Dr. Wald after reading “Shout, Sister, Shout” and asked her to be an editorial consultant on a film about Ms. Tharpe. He filmed the documentary in 2010 with a minimal budget, renting a van and hiring one cameraman with whom he traveled up and down the East Coast, interviewing academics, musicians and the people who had known Rosetta Tharpe best.
“It was really a labor of love for him,” Dr. Wald said. “He made it with a BBC or PBS audience in mind, knowing that there wasn’t any real money in it. He was able to do it through the goodwill a lot of people gave him.”
Many of the people she interviewed for her book—some of whom also appear in the film—were quite elderly. And while these contemporaries of Ms. Tharpe who knew her well are fading away, the book and film projects have generated a resurgence of interest in her life and music. A man in Philadelphia who heard Dr. Wald speak on NPR discovered that Ms. Tharpe was buried in an unmarked grave. He arranged a benefit concert that raised enough money to purchase a headstone. Later, he worked with community activists to place a plaque on the house where Ms. Tharpe had lived in one of Philadelphia’s first middle-class black neighborhoods. And in 2008, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell declared Jan. 11 as Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
“Since my book came out, many people I talked to [about Ms. Tharpe] have since died. I felt, and Mick felt too, that we were working against time,” Dr. Wald said. “So it was a story of loss, but also of productive gain. Since 2007, we’ve had the book, the benefit concert and the film. Now she’ll be on a national PBS show. In the last 10 years, a lot of people have contributed to making her legacy visible.”
Mr. Czaky interviewed Dr. Wald on camera one hot July day in 2010 in her seventh-floor Rome Hall office. Because the air-conditioning unit made noise that was picked up by the microphones, they had to shut it off. So for seven hours, Mr. Czaky, Dr. Wald and the cameraman squeezed into her stifling office to shoot what amounted to perhaps five minutes of on-screen time in the film. But despite the literal sweat and tears that went into the process, Dr. Wald said she was enormously pleased and proud to be part of the project. She hopes that the film, which will air on PBS stations nationwide, will introduce a large number of Americans to Ms. Tharpe’s music.
“I just want viewers to enjoy the music, and enjoy the precious images we have of this dynamic performer,” she said. “And if they enjoy what they hear, then we’re lucky that virtually all of her music is preserved and is on CD. You don’t have to be a collector to hear more. I hope this opens up a whole world of listening.”
Dr. Wald is currently on fellowship leave from GW, working on a new book about the PBS television program “Soul!” which will explore its role in making black music more widely accessible, as well as raising consciousness and creating community during the civil rights era.