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The old-school, all-Black, southern gospel survives today as a subculture of church songs. However, nearly every genre of contemporary American music is deeply rooted in the Black church.
“The Queen of Gospel,”Mahalia Jackson, would have turned 109-years-old today. She sang with a unique power that could awaken the timidest spirits and humble the mightiest egos.
Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26th, 1911, in New Orleans and raised in a shotgun house with 13 others. By the time she turned 12-years-old, Mahalia had sung three days a week in her church’s choir. At 16-years-old, Mahalia moved to Chicago and became one of the six million Black southerners who make up the Great Migration. While in Chicago in the late 1930s, Mahalia met Georgia native Thomas Dorsey (“The Father of Gospel”), and together they led The Golden Age of Gospel.
Throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s, Mahalia recorded the very Black, call-and-response gospel that transcended race and made her a household name. She performed on worldwide stages to massive audiences and by almost every definition, was the quintessential American success story. However, by the early 1960s, America was in the middle of a great awakening and in desperate need of the Lord’s mercy.
The Black Church was a central part of the Civil Rights Movement. While the church itself served as a home base, the music of the church, the gospel, moved from city to city (largely due to the Great Migration) and served as an energy booster for the people’s protests. While Martin Luther King Jr. used his reverend background to inspire, and John Lewis used his leadership skills to organize, Mahalia Jackson’s contribution to the Movement was her sound. The gospel that emerged from the spirituals of enslaved Black Americans vibrates highest in Mahalia Jackson’s songs of hope and sacrifice.
Even though she earned the handle “The Queen of Gospel,” what made Mrs. Jackson so precious wasn’t her gospel; it was her commitment to caring for her fellow brothers. She recognized that her duty as a servant for God happened in the streets outside of the church house. When she was poor, she bought food with her last dollars to make dinner and host the hungry in her home. When she became rich, she gave her money without judgment to men who asked her for change on the street, despite their obvious drunkenness. When Mrs. Jackson died on January 27, 1972, Ebony Magazine published a photo of one of her two funerals (held in her homes of New Orleans and Chicago), and the audience to send her off into silence, was as gigantic as the crowds who came to hear her sing.
In honor of the Queen’s timeless, sacred sound, here is a collection of Mahalia Jackson’s interviews and glory moments.
This hidden gem is an excerpt from one of the most culturally relevant interviews of our time. It’s from a 1963 Studs Terkel interview. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when white mobs ran wild and routinely instigated violence against Black protestors and civilians, Mahalia questioned the sincerity of white rage. She talks about wondering if the white babies she nursed 18+ years earlier grew into mob men. She shares her experience of being an international gospel superstar with white fans who will praise her voice but not serve her a sandwich at a restaurant. When she spoke on the justified resistance of young protesters in 1963, it’s easy to mistake her Civil Rights era comment for one made in 2020, the era of Black Lives Matter. Listen to the full interview online.
One fun fact about Mahalia Jackson is that she played a choir soloist in the 1959 version of the film “Imitation of Life.” At the end of the movie, Mahalia belts out the song “Trouble of the World” at the funeral of poor Annie. Although she appeared in this Hollywood movie, throughout her career, Mahalia Jackson kept her promise to herself that she would not crossover into pop culture, a temptation that many of her gospel peers could not resist.
This interview was recorded less than a year before Mahalia Jackson died. In this on-camera clip, she speaks slowly like a sage giving advice to a scared wanderer. Listen to her keep it as real as any Black granny when speaking on the emerging profit preachers, “If you gon’ blab put your money up there and do something.” At the 12:46 mark in the clip, she recalls the devastating demands on men during the Great Depression and she prays that a time will never come again where people will be out of work, the tone in her voice eerily mirrors what millions of Americans fear today in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
This performance was recorded live on the Nat King Cole Show and Mahalia Jackson shows out. She is playful in her demeanor, yet every single note is pitch-perfect
This raw, unrehearsed footage from a church service in the mid-1960s where an enthusiastic Mahalia Jackson led the choir in a Black church standard song, “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho.” She looks so happy to be there and sings and dances amongst the choir (certainly filled with singers who double as Mahalia’s biggest fans), with a warm smile underneath a pair of serious eyes. At the 2:05 mark, Martin Luther King Jr. fawns over Mahalia’s powerful voice from behind his pulpit in a packed churchhouse. This video reminds me of Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball, where another perfect moment in gospel history was caught on camera when her famous musical guests sang impromptu gospel at an outdoor brunch. This old tradition is called “passing the mic,” a spontaneous sing-along common in Black choirs.
If you excuse the poor video quality and listen to a young Mahalia Jackson sing simple lyrics of indescribable gratitude, she’ll have you feeling automatically thankful for life’s blessings.
This is not a live performance, but I had to include it in this collection to share the hair raising run Mahalia sings at the 1:14 mark.
This is a profound performance of a smoky stage with a spotlight on Jackson, slowly rocking in an old chair singing with divine intention. “Summertime” is one of the very few secular songs Mahalia ever sang live. Her mystical demeanor, accompanied by the haunting black and white visuals, left me emotionally drunk. It’s the essential Mahalia and the duality of feeling that she encompasses that is unforgivably heartbreaking, yet somehow delicate and inspiring.
While in Europe, Mahalia gives up the ghost and performs her gospel with that genuine surrender that fascinates white audiences. The European audience’s reaction to Jackson’s sweaty face, long red robe, impressive showmanship and roof shattering vocals are priceless. They look afraid and saved at the same time.
In this video, Mahalia Jackson performs one of the most well-known gospel standards, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” live from Antibes, France. The Motown-esp, showstopping sequins dress she wears coupled with her deep, clear vibrato and impromptu riffs remind listeners that Mrs. Jackson can turn any tune, including a children’s song, into sacred magic.
In this three-song show, Mahalia Jackson takes a massive audience of Jazz listeners straight to church. She’s wearing her hair in a simple bun to match her modest light blue dress. Even though the emcee introduces her as “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer,” the diva only comes out in her voice. After the crowd erupts following her performance of “Didn’t It Rain,” Mahalia tries hushing the applause by humbly saying, “alright now, you make me feel like I’m a star.” Then she sings a rendition of “Lord’s Prayer,” as if God wrote the lyrics directly on her tongue.