Happy Birthday, Mahalia Jackson!

Mahalia Jackson

Rare is the singer who can sing with verve and power and fill a concert hall with such emotion that hearers are moved to tears. Rarer still is the singer who can effect the same response in the midst of a humble storefront church, in the soaring environs of massive cathedrals, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and at a Presidential Inaugural Ball. Mahalia Jackson was such a singer, and the gospel music world, indeed the world as whole, has yet to hear her equal.

Before Irma Thomas, before Shirley Caesar, before Cissy Houston, before Aretha Franklin, before The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, before Andraé Crouch, there was Mahalia Jackson. Ultimately crowned “The Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson’s inimitable contralto moved millions around the world, beginning in the church of her childhood years and stretching to every conceivable venue of power and prestige.

A favorite soloist of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she would sing at one of his pinnacle moments before he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. At a turning point in Dr. King's oration she shouted, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream." She had heard King's soaring vision two months earlier when King spoke at the massive "Walk to Freedom" demonstration in Detroit, Michigan. She would grace Dr. King's life and legacy on several more occasions and finally, poignantly in the dolorous moments of his funeral.

With Duke Ellington she introduced gospel music to a new generation of hearers at the Newport Jazz Festival. She sang for Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, and four times she sang at Carnegie Hall and increased the esteem of that venerated venue because of what she did there. Because of her fidelity to the genre of gospel music and her virtuoso talent, she was able to popularize the genre of gospel music, as well as African-American spirituals, more widely than anyone before her. She abides into the 21st century as “the definitive exponent of gospel music.”

Dynamic Interactive Prayer

The strength of Mahalia Jackson’s voice was matched only by the strength of her faith and her perduring prayer practices. She prayed before performances, as a member of a gospel group and as a soloist. She prayed in church on Sundays and at home every day of the week as well. She prayed for the health and healing of her family members, and she prayed for the peace of her adopted hometown of Chicago after riots broke out there. She prayed standing up and on her knees and always with her matchless voice.

In a momentous occasion, she prayed in an interactive, “bargaining” manner with fervent hopes for her grandfather’s healing. When her grandfather regained his health, she understood that she had made a career decision: “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.”

The Major “Keys” of Her Faith

The “Keys” in which Mahalia Jackson expressed her abiding faith – musically and spiritually – were rich and profound:

*   Life is a “Hallelujah!” There is no greater poverty than poverty of the spirit.

*   The faith experiences of prayer, preaching, and music should be full.

*   Music conveys as powerfully as any medium devised by humanity the gift of saving grace.

*   Modeling one’s life after the manner and ways of Jesus is at the heart of the sanctified life.

*   Emotion and expressiveness in the realm of faith need not be feared but rather embraced.

Making a Joyful Noise

Joy was the premier theme of Mahalia Jackson’s musical career, life, and faith. “I am a sanctified woman . . . making a joyful noise in praise of the Lord,” she would say to countless interviewers and journalists. Whenever she could she would opine on the difference between the “blue-ness” of the blues and the joy of gospel music. To one observer of the music scene in New Orleans, she said, “The blues are fine for listenin’. But I never would sing them. I was saved. Remember David in the Bible: Sing joyfully unto the Lord with a loud voice? I took his advice.”  The joyful character of gospel music enhanced her sense of freedom and hopefulness, as well, she declared: “I sing God's music because it makes me feel free....It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.”

For legions of listeners, she gave fresh interpretations to the music and the meanings of“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,“ ”Silent Night,” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”

This week and this post, by Rev. Dr. Bob Hill of Community Christian Church in Kansas City, MO, mark the birthday of Mahalia Jackson, gospel singer extraordinaire who was unafraid to make a joyful noise unto the Lord!  Thanks, Bob, for reminding us to lift up our own voices with the chorus of saints that are all around!

Elizabeth MyerComment