Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mahalia Jackson

special request from Charlie

Mahalia Jackson, forever known as the "Gospel Queen," was born on October 26, 1911 into a poor family in the Black Pearl section of Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana; the Jacksons' three-room dwelling on Pitt Street housed thirteen people. It was a shack, really, and sat between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi River levee with a pump that delivered water so dirty that cornmeal had to be used as a filtering agent. Jackson's father, like many blacks in the segregated south, held several jobs; he was a longshoreman, a barber, and a preacher at a small church. Her mother, a devout Baptist who died when Mahalia was five, took care of the six Jackson children and the house, using washed-up driftwood and planks from old barges to fuel the stove.

As a child, Mahalia was taken in by the sounds of New Orleans, the rhythm of the city. She listened to woodpeckers rumbling, and heard music; trains rumbling past her house were songs; steamboats whistled, sailors and street people sang to her. All of New Orleans was music, and Mahalia Jackson soaked it in. When Mardi Gras arrived, the music grew louder, played everywhere, and, in her room, by herself, Mahalia Jackson quietly sand the blues of Bessie Smith.

But Jackson's close relatives disapproved of the blues--a music indigenous to southern black culture--calling it decadent, and claiming that the only acceptable songs were the gospels of the church. In gospel songs, Mahalia was told, music was the vehicle of religious faith. As Jesse Jackson--no relation to the civil rights leader--said in his biography of Mahalia, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord!, "It was like choosing between the devil and God. You couldn't have it both ways."

Mahalia made up her mind. When Little Haley tried out for the Baptist choir, she silenced the crowd by singing "I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm so glad I've been in the grave an' rose again.… "

In 1927, at the age of sixteen, Jackson moved from Louisiana to to Chicago--in the midst of what was known as the Great Migration of blacks leaving the south. With only an eighth grade education but a strong ambition to become a nurse, Jackson earned a living by washing white people's clothes for a dollar a day.

After her first Sunday church service, where she gave an impromptu performance of her favorite song, "Hand Me Down My Favorite Trumpet, Gabriel", she was invited to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir. She began touring the city's churches and surrounding areas with the Johnson Brothers Gospel Singers.

Although other small choir groups had cut records in the past, the Johnson Brothers may have been the first professional gospel group ever, even producing a series of musical dramas in which Jackson starred. Her provocative performing style--influenced by the Southern style of keeping time with the body, with jerks and steps used for physical emphasis--enraged many of the more conservative Northern preachers, but few could deny her fierce talent.

Though she sang traditional hymns and spirituals almost exclusively, Jackson was still fascinated with the blues. During the Great Depression, she knew she could earn more money singing the songs that her relatives considered profane and blasphemous. But when her beloved grandfather was struck down by a stroke and fell into a coma, Jackson vowed to never enter a theater again, or sing the kinds of songs of which he disapproved, if he recovered. He did; and Mahalia never broke that vow. She wrote in her autobiography, Movin' On Up: "I feel God heard me and wanted me to devote my life to his songs and that is why he suffered my prayers to be answered-so that nothing would distract me from being a gospel singer."

Later in her career, Jackson would turn down lucrative offers to sing in nightclubs--sometimes as much as $25,000 a performance--even if the club owners promised not to serve whiskey. But she never dismissed the blues as anti-religious, like her relatives had done: it was simply a matter of the vow she had made, as well as a matter of inspiration.

"There's no sense in my singing the blues, because I just don't feel it," she told Harper's magazine. "In the old, heart-felt songs, whether it's the blues or gospel music, there's the distressed cry of a human being. But in the blues, it's all despair; when you're done singing, you're still lonely and sorrowful. In the gospel songs, there's mourning and sorrow, too, but there's always hope and consolation to lift you above it."

In 1929 Jackson met the composer Thomas A. Dorsey,the Father of Gospel Music, who gave her musical advice and became he mentor; they began a fourteen-year association of touring, with Jackson singing Dorsey's songs in church programs and at conventions. Together they visited churches and "gospel tents" around the country, and Jackson's reputation as a singer and interpreter of spirituals blossomed. She returned to Chicago after five years on the road and opened a beauty salon and a flower shop, both of which drew customers from the gospel and church communities. She continued to make records that brought her fairly little monetary reward.

In 1946, while practicing in a recording studio, a representative from Decca Records overheard Jackson sing an old spiritual from her childhood. He advised her to record it, and a few weeks later she did. "Move On Up a Little Higher" became her signature song, selling 100,000 copies overnight and soon passing the two million dollar mark. Black ministers praised it from the pulpit; black disc jockeys played it constantly. The black press hailed Mahalia Jackson as 'the only Negro whom Negroes have made famous."'

The success of this record rocketed Jackson to fame in the U.S. and soon after in Europe. During this time she toured as a concert artist, appearing more frequently in concert halls and less often in churches. As a consequence of this change in her venues, her arrangements expanded from piano and organ to orchestral accompaniments.

Another change to her style of touring, at least back home in the United States, was that now she was not so much as a hand-to-mouth singer." Now, Mahalia Jackson toured in her own Cadillac. The car was big enough for her to sleep in when she was performing in areas with hotels that failed to provide accommodations for blacks; she also could store enough food in the car so that when she visited the segregated South she wouldn't have to sit in the backs of restaurants.

Soon enough the emotional and resonant singing of the "Gospel Queen," began reaching the white community as well. She appeared regularly on Studs Terkel's radio show in Chicago and was ultimately given her own radio and television programs. On October 4, 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform mat Carnegie Hall--to a packed house no less.

In her autobiography how she reacted to the jubilant audience. "I got carried away, too, and found myself singing on my knees for them. I had to straighten up and say, 'Now we'd best remember we're in Carnegie Hall and if we cut up too much, they might put us out."'

She toured Europe again in 1952, hailed by overseas critics as the "world's greatest gospel singer". In Paris, she was dubbed the "Angel of Peace," and throughout the continent she sang to capacity audiences. Jackson ultimately became equally popular overseas and performed for royalty and adoring fans throughout France, England, Denmark, and Germany. One of her most rewarding concerts took place in Israel, where she sang before an audience of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Her career at home also continued to rise. She had her own radio series on CBS and was signed to Columbia Records in 1954. In her autobiography, Jackson described a conversation with a reporter who asked why she thought white people had taken to her traditionally black, church songs. She answered, "Well, honey, maybe they tried drink and they tried psychoanalysis and now they're going to try to rejoice with me a bit."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jackson's attention turned to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. Although she had grown up on Water Street, where black and white families lived together peacefully, she was well aware of the injustice engendered by the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South.

At the request of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahalia Jackson participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, an action precipitated by Rosa Parks's refusal to move from a bus seat reserved for whites. During the famous March on Washington in 1963, seconds before Dr. King delivered his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech, Jackson sang the old inspirational, "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" to over 200,000 people.

Not content with merely singing about goodness, Mahalia Jackson devoted much of her time and energy to helping others. She established the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation for young people who wanted to attend college. For her efforts in helping international understanding, she received the Silver Dove Award.

Mahalia Jackson died in Chicago on January 27, 1972, never having fulfilled her dream of building a nondenominational temple, where people could sing, celebrate life, and nurture the talents of children. Her funeral was attended by over six thousand fans.

And yet, with all the accolades heaped upon her....Greatest Gospel Singer ever.....Angel of Peace...Jackson considered herself a simple woman: she enjoyed cooking for friends as much as marveling at landmarks around the world. But it was in her music that she found her spirit most eloquently expressed. She wrote in her autobiography: "Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidings-spreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart. Join with me sometime-whether you're white or colored-and you will feel it for yourself. Its future is brighter than a daisy."

Two cities paid tribute to Jackson upon her death.

Beginning in Chicago, outside the Greater Salem Baptist Church where she got her start, 50,000 people, some who knew her, some who knew her by her music, filed silently past her mahogany, glass-topped coffin. The next day, as many as could — 6,000 or more — filled every seat and stood along the walls of the city's public concert hall, the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place, for a two-hour funeral service.

Three days later, a thousand miles away, the scene repeated itself: again the long lines, the silent tribute, thousands filling, this time, the great hall of the Rivergate Convention Center in New Orleans. The funeral cortège of 24 limousines drove slowly past her childhood place of worship, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, where her recordings played through loudspeakers.


mistress maddie said...

She did have a wonderful voice didn't she! Thanks for sharing.

Berry Blog said...

Bob...could I have your email address? Can't find it on your blog. Mine is
Am reading Mahalia now. Thank you so much.

History channel is running a program on Johnny Mae Chappell, a murdered mother of 10 in March of 1964. ( "Wanted Justice: Johnny Mae Chappell).It's moving. I'd like to be able to share information that maybe not everybody is interested in with you or comment privately on things.

Berry Blog said...

I read the article and saw the that was an old one! Since high school I collected her works- my own weird lifestyle and pffft! I no longer had them. I often wake up today with her songs on my mind in just her style, hearing her voice.
I wonder if you would find out why she gave up jazz...rumored even in my day...for strictly gospel. Years later I was a psychic reader for Ree Ree() she would deny this today) her early years coming from a hugely powerful Black minister father with a gigantic following in Detroit, and always in trouble with him for not sticking to gospel. Jackson was also an influence on her but she felt she had to expand. Their relationship greatly troubled her. If Mahalia were alive they could stand side by side on the stage and transform us all.
You found a lot of stuff I didn't know but will add to my heady mythology. Aretha in her own way has created that non denominational way of thinking about the human experience and provides for that need for joy.

Wonder Man said...

love her voice