My Aunt Tissie was what some would call a holy-roller. She never married and spent a lot of time in various charismatic churches. A gorgeous, loving, generous woman it was through her and her long time African American friend, Sunshine, that I was introduced to the music of Mahalia Jackson. Whenever the preacher Billy Graham was in town or one of his soul-winning campaigns was on TV, Tissie would be sure to remind us that Mahalia would be singing and for many years gospel music for me did not include any other singer except for her.
Born into a poor family in New Orleans one hundred and one years ago, Mahalia Jackson’s burly, commanding voice caught the attention of the congregation at the Mt Moriah Baptist Church. By age 12 her voice was so powerful it could be heard a block away causing a relative to predict that ‘you’ll walk with kings and presidents one day.’ Growing up in New Orleans, it was impossible to not to be influenced by myriad musical styles. Mahalia’s two early influences were the jaunty, almost raucous gospel music of the Sanctified Church and the blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Like millions of other African Americans seeking brighter horizons her family moved north in Chicago while she was still a teenager where Mahalia worked in a laundry and cleaning homes. She continued singing around Chicago and made a bit of a name for herself. Her first ‘break’ came when she was selected by the Rev. Thomas Dorsey, widely regarded the Father of Gospel Music, to be his singing partner. Together, they toured churches throughout the US and though her initial record did not impress many people, her 1948 recording, Move On Up a Little Higher sold over a million copies, a phenomenal milestone for the time. Her bluesy contralto voice provided a nice complement to the secular blues artists that were getting some attention on white radio stations. Mahalia herself vowed only to record spiritual music a promise she kept her entire life, despite receiving lucrative and repeated offers to record secular music. “I can't sing a song that doesn't have a message. If it doesn't have the strength, it can't lift you,” she said.
While many of her peers moved from the church to the Broadway or the R&B stage, she never understood the attraction. “Rock n’ roll,” she famously said, “was stolen out of the sanctified church.” As her fame grew both in America and internationally (she toured Europe and later Asia and Africa) she did make concessions to popular music by appearing on popular TV shows and contributed to jazz records which raised the objections of gospel purists and white racists. The first resented her moving away from ‘true’ gospel music. The latter just didn’t like ‘rich, uppity niggers’.
The response from the bigots led her to actively join the Civil Rights Movement, and forge an enduring friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By the end of her life in 1972 she was (and is today) regarded at gospel music’s greatest voice. Indeed, one of America’s most influential and powerful voices, regardless of genre.
“Her voice is a heartfelt express of all that is most human about us—our fears, our faith, our hope for salvation,” David Ritz wrote in his liner notes for Mahalia Jackson: 16 Most Requested Songs. “Hope is the hallmark of Mahalia Jackson and the gospel tradition she embodies.”
So many of the songs on the double CD box set Gospels, Spirituals and Hymns which is the subject of tonight’s post are part of the musical landscape of my life. Elijah Rock, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, If I can Help Somebody, Jesus Met the Woman at the Well to name only a few. More recent favorites are Rusty Old Halo and Dear Lord, Forgive.
All in all a timeless set of songs by the Queen of American Spiritual Singing.
Track Listing (disc one):
1-01 Didn't It Rain
1-02 My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real)
1-03 Walk Over God's Heaven
1-04 If I Can Help Somebody
1-05 Come On Children, Let's Sing
1-06 What A Friend We Have In Jesus
1-07 I Found The Answer
1-08 It Is Well With My Soul
1-09 Great Gettin' Up Morning
1-10 You Must Be Born Again
1-11 Elijah Rock
1-12 Jesus Met The Woman At The Well
1-13 A Satisfied Mind
1-14 Keep Your Hand On The Plow
1-15 Roll, Jordan, Roll
1-17 In My Home Over There
1-18 I Will Move On Up A Little Higher
Track Listing (disc two):
2-01 In The Upper Room
2-02 The Christian's Testimony
2-03 If We Never Needed The Lord Before (We Sure Do Need Him Now)
2-04 A City Called Heaven
2-05 Trouble Of The World
2-06 Without God I Could Do Nothing
2-07 Take My Hand, Precious Lord
2-08 Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho
2-09 His Eye Is On The Sparrow
2-10 God Put A Rainbow In The Sky
2-11 Jesus Met The Woman At The Well [Live]
2-12 A Rusty Old Halo
2-13 Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen
2-14 Dear Lord, Forgive
2-15 I'm Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song
2-16 Search Me Lord
2-17 If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again
2-18 Walk On By Faith