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 â€œwhite gloveâ€ method. If the house was not cleaned properly, Halie would be beaten with a â€œcat-o-nine-tails.â€ 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. And note to Keyshia Cole, this is how His Eye Is On The Sparrow is done.
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. I wish I could have found video footage of her version of Summertime, it is truly amazing.
I love it best when she sings happy gospel, like Come On Children, Let’s Sing, and Just a Closer Walk With Thee, which is possibly my favorite gospel song of all time. The message of Shout All Over is so dead on — “everyone talkin’ bout Heaven ain’t going.” So true, and so many who talk about Heaven believe their name is on the guest list and they’ve got some kind of reserved VIP booth.
Her version of Elijah Rock is just foot stomping, hand clapping fun. Man, that’s the definition of vocal power. She makes so many of today’s singers sound like a joke. 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.
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.
Mahalia starts really feeling it around 2:30, 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.