Mighty Mahalia Jackson

On days when I feel low, I need to step away from my usual routines and get in touch with my spiritual side. Although I’m not a regular churchgoer (in fact, I am still referred to as “the little heathen” by a much-loved family member who shall remain nameless), I do have one. I’m not particularly religious, but I am spiritual. There’s a real distinction there. And one of the ways that I tap into my spiritual center is by listening to old school gospel music. Nobody can soothe my soul more than the late, great Mahalia Jackson.

Her name is synonymous with the power of gospel, and knowing her childhood history helps to shed light on where her strong spiritual resiliency came from.

She was born in the Black Pearl section of Carrollton, Louisiana, near the levees of New Orleans. She had badly bowed legs as a child. Rather than perform the doctor recommended surgery that involved breaking and re-setting her legs, Mahalia’s mother, Charity, would rub her legs with greasy dishwater in a misguided attempt to cure her.

Her mother died when she was six, and at that young age she was sent to live with “Aunt Duke,” who made her and her brother Peter work all day long. Her Wikipedia page claims, “Aunt Duke would always inspect the house using the “white glove” method. If the house was not cleaned properly, Halie would be beaten with a “cat-o-nine-tails.” If one of the other relatives was unable to do their chores, or clean at their job, Halie or one of her cousins was expected to perform that particular task. School was hardly an option.”

From a young age Mahalia dreamed of being a singer, and she expressed her emotions every week in the Mount Moriah Baptist Church. In 1935, she landed her first recording contract after being heard singing at a funeral. And as they always say, the rest is history. She brought the power of the church to the people, and became the most famous gospel singer of all time.

As she was influenced by early blues musicians like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson brought that intonation to gospel music. She passed her influences along, and you can hear Mahalia’s inflections in the wail of Little Richard and the warbling melisma of Aretha Franklin. I love the understated power in Somebody Bigger than You and I, and my dad’s favorite hymn, I Come to the Garden Alone. This is how His Eye Is On The Sparrow is done, it’s the original standard.

In 1959, Mahalia’s version of He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands became a hit on the Billboard 100. On August 28, 1963, she sang “I Been Buked and I Been Scorned,” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before her close friend Martin Luther King began his speech. Mahalia sat behind Dr. King, and she was the one who called out “Tell them about your dream, Martin!, Tell them ’bout your dream,” thereby spurring his oration so memorably forward.

She was a gospel singer, but Mahalia Jackson sang and recorded with jazz musicians. In those days it was tantamount to blasphemy to cross those musical lines, but Mahalia did it with grace.

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I love it best when she sings happy gospel, like Come On Children, Let’s Sing. Also, I love that dress!

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I love her version of Just a Closer Walk With Thee, which is possibly my favorite classic gospel song of all time.

Her version of Elijah Rock is just foot stomping, hand clapping fun. Man, that’s the definition of vocal power.

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There’s something so beautiful about that footage to me. The retro quality of the film stock, the contrast between Mahalia feeling the spirit and the relatively stoic European audience. At the end of this very long clip, she segways into a spine-tingling version of We Shall Overcome, that could well bring tears to your eyes.

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They say Mahalia Jackson wasn’t afraid of death. She succumbed to heart failure January 27, 1972, and the incredibly moving footage of her funeral at the end of that last video clip reveals how deeply she touched the world. The words of her prayer reveal the kind of woman she was: “When you think of all the good things that God has given to you, do you stop to think, what have I done for somebody else?” Those are the kinds of questions that linger and resonate; the kinds of questions we should ask ourselves regardless of our beliefs.

One of my favorite clips of Mahalia Jackson performing is at the the Newport Jazz Festival, when she dedicated her performance of Just a Closer Walk With Thee to her friend Louis Armstrong.

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Mahalia starts really feeling it around 3:00, and her wig just develops a mind of its own. Does she stop singing, or fix her runaway bouffant? Lord, no. She flicks it around and works it for all it’s worth. By the end of it, she walks away from the mike still singing, and her hair’s like Elvis gone wild. But she’s so caught up in the spirit, she doesn’t let it stop her. After that, she brings Louis on stage for a powerful duet. That video right there is why I love, love, love Mahalia Jackson. She makes even this little heathen feel the spirit.

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Comments

  1. Ami Jane says:

    Oh, I can’t wait to read this when, I get home. I love Mahalia Jackson to. There is no comparison to Mahalia. Lovely voice. Soulful, Soulful, Soulful…

  2. mochachoc says:

    Although I am not a Christian nor religious Mahalia was just delightful. What a gift to the world.

  3. Please get some of her CDs for me when I see you. I too love to hear really good, tuneful,traditional gospel music. And there are others who do it very well also, even the late Elvis.
    Have you tuned in to ”Gospelipso”?

  4. Yes, Yes, Mahalia’s heavenly voice moves me and so many others. She was definitely a spirit-filled vessel for God. People that you wouldn’t expect to listen to her do today. Once I worked for a bridal boutique, I had the assignment of calling bridal vendors to order a customers merchandise. As the customer rep and (NJ)Italian biz owner took my order, I heard this melodic voice in the background. I said to her, “Is that Mahalia?” She laughed and said “yes”.
    I said, I love Mahalia. She kindly replied, I do too. I don’t listen to Gospel you know, but her voice soothes me while I work. I said, it sure sounds good. We wondered if her music has been recorded on CD.
    Mahalia is universal. Afrobella, keep His spirit alive in your heart like you do, no “walls” can box Him in right?.

  5. jerseybred says:

    I love Mahalia’s voice, Does anyone remember the Time Life commericals “Oh Precoius Lord, take my hand…”?
    I’m gonna get you for “her wig just develops a mind of its own” it surely does, but I love her just the same.

  6. byrdparker says:

    funny , i was just listening to mahalia the other day … Love her … thanks bella

  7. kallirhoe says:

    Mahalia Jackson has a very special place in my heart, for as long as I can remember (and for about 30 years before my time) my family has gathered in front of the radio every christmas day morning and listened to Mahalia sing Holy Night. Just thinking about it gives me a warm feeling:)

  8. Dad, consider it done! I’ll get some of the stuff I know you’ll love, like “I Walk in the Garden Alone”. I’ve got lots and lots of music to share.

    Her music is just filled with warm, positive energy that people of all denominations can feel.

  9. MochaSiren says:

    Afrobella,

    I love Mahalia as well. My Nana used to play her records all the time on her cherry wood record player. (Anybody else remember when record players were furniture?!) Also, your Dad is so correct… Elvis did put out some beautiful gospel music. I have a CD called Elvis-Ultimate Gospel…gives me goosebumps! Your Dad would probably like that one too!

  10. Mona B. says:

    This is why I love your site! Great post Bella! Mahalia Jackson left quite the legacy. “Precious Lord” brings tears to my eyes everytime I hear it. Her voice always strikes a chord with me. Very few artists today have that effect on people.

  11. berrybrowne says:

    i am a christian and was brought up on mahaila. my little sister did a particularly strong imitation of “walk in jerusalem” that brought down the house on the regular. especially when she’d do the “high up!” and her left eye would roll back like bill cosby’s did when he was emoting on the cosby show – good times:-)

    my favorite mahalia moment, i confess, is when she sang the funeral music on “imitation of life” and the daughter came in crying, finally, “i’m sorry, mama, i’m sorry!” just thinking about it makes me teary-eyed.

    thanks for giving this awesome woman some love, ‘bella.

  12. Yeah, that funeral scene during “Imitation of Life” gets me every time! The sounds of Mahailia Jackson remind me of going over my great-grandparent’s house during the holidays and hearing her voice in the background while us kids would run around all over the place, sweet potato pies baking in the oven. Good memories!

  13. Natalie says:

    Girl,
    Thanks for the post Ms. Bella! Thanks for the tribute.

  14. Don’t forget about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was also a gospel great and an incredible blues guitarist, considered by some to be the mother of rockabilly.

  15. Mrs518 says:

    great article

  16. Auragirl says:

    Thanks for this post…this is the first time I have heard of Mahalia Jackson, and I’m glad I’ve been introduced to such a soulful singer. There’s nothing like a singer who can move your spirit! :)

    *Loved her version of “We Shall Overcome”!*

  17. I have loved Mahalia since I first heard my mother speak about her and her family & then I heard THAT VOICE!! The voice has stayed with me for over 35 years and counting!She is DYNAMIC and her and Aretha are still my all time favs.Bellas this is what singing is supposed to sound like!! All of the “singas” of today should ask themselves will my music move people after 40 years!(i think not BEY!) This woman sang w\out a “track” backing her.Raw talent, superb article, Bella u never stop amazing me.Thank-You :)

  18. Thaddeus C says:

    You should really have your own tv show. Your blog is just to cool to be a blog anymore. I am a straight male and find your blog to be fun and informative. I dig how it isn’t just about “hair” or “beauty products”. You blog would make a a great tv show. Call Oprah and get a deal started.

  19. Great post! I can honestly say Ive never really seen her perform live – it was a treat! Even for thi snon-Christian, lol.
    L

  20. I recently started a blog about make-up called “Beauty 101,” and I’m finding it difficult to get visitors. Since your blog is so well-known, I’d appreciate it greatly if you could add mine to your links to help increase traffic to my blog? I’d appreciate this greatly. Thank you in advance.

  21. Black Honey says:

    Hey Bella, Mahalia is one of my favorites and like some of the previous posters she holds a special place in my heart. Growing up in my grand’s house I hear a lot of her music.

    The thing I loved most about this post Bella, was the background information. I would love to read a full volume about her life. (hint,hint)

  22. rita n says:

    PRAISE GOD PRAISE GOD PRAISE GOD!!! I love Mahalia and I love the lord for sending her to earth for a short time. Mahalia is one of our best legacies and we have to keep her music alive for generations to come.
    And I love this site Bella! I can not make it past a few days without stopping by and checking in. Stay strong and stay blessed.

  23. mahalia is about the only gospel singer i can listen to any time, anywhere.

    bless her.

  24. RODGER JOHNSON says:

    YOU MENTIONED MAHALIA’S PERFORMANCE OF “JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE” AT THE NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL. I SAW THE CLIP ON YOUTUBE. DO YOU KNOW IF THIS PERFORMANCE IS AVAILABE ON EITHER CD OR DVD? THANKS-RODGER

  25. I decovered your website because I am trying to find the name of a song I heard the great mahlia jackson sing,but the only words I remember are, I am going home to be with my lord.
    My mother passed away on the 12/11/08,her funeral is this week thursday and I wonted the words to that song but could not find them. Help!

  26. Trinity says:

    the song might have been precious lord she sang it at king funeral

  27. The late Mahalia sang Precious Lord at a college (Moorehouse in Atlanta) memorial nationally televised. You tube has a link to it. Type into You Tube: Mahalia Jackson MLK funeral and watch it. It was outdoors. The segment is short, but I watched it live and complete in April 1968. You will love her.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 1. Visit Afro Bella for a wonderful tribute to the great Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia overcame great odds to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a gospel singer. Her perserverance and faith in God allowed her to live her dreams and to pave the way for so many others. Loved the last youtube video! Her wig had a mind of its own.  [...]

  2. [...] I got lots of positive feedback on my Mahalia Jackson post, but one comment threw me for a loop — I had one commenter admit that she’d never heard of Mahalia Jackson before. That got me wondering about the younger generations, and how much older music might be lost to them. So I’m stepping up my flashback jam game to try to shed light on artists who might be forgotten or at the very least, slept on. [...]

  3. [...] In the beginning, there was Memphis Minnie, whose most famous recordings were “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Barbara Lynn made the electric guitar a cool part of the soul scene in the Sixties (do yourself a favor and enjoy that clip, her version of “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” is my favorite. Even moreso than Aretha’s, and that’s saying a lot.) There have been folkies like Odetta, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, and Sparla Swa, as well as tough, soulful rocker chicks like Meshell Ndegeocello and Felicia Collins. One of my all-time favorite black female guitarists is gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She brought rock n’ roll to the church, and infused gospel with the blues. Despite the negative reaction of her religious base, she brought a fresh energy to her genre. Sister Rosetta was one of the first recording artists to play lead guitar, and she was the biggest crossover star in gospel music, before Mighty Mahalia made her mark in the Sixties. [...]

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