Through the amazing power of her voice and the expressive spirituality of her singing Mahalia Jackson brought the traditional songs of “gospel” to the forefront of Black religious music and in the process became a world-famous singer. In spite of her fame and success, however, the “Queen of Gospel” always remained true to what she held to be her religious mission and refused to sing secular blues songs or to appear in nightclubs.
Jackson, the granddaughter of a slave, was five years old when her mother died and left her to the care of an aunt, a strict Christian woman. As a child she started singing “almost as soon as [she] was walking and talking.” She loved music from an early age – not only the hymns in her Mount Moriah Baptist Church, but the whole range of music in New Orleans, from the brass bands in the streets, the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton or the recorded blues of Bessie Smith to the uninhibited, emotional singing, clapping and stomping of the many small pentecostal or “Holiness” churches. These different musical influences would later flow together in Jackson’s gospel songs to create a new form of Black music.
Mahalia Jackson had to quit school early to earn money as a laundress, but in 1928 she made her way to Chicago where she hoped for better opportunities than the South offered. At first she continued washing clothes for white families and worked as a hotel maid. But she also sang in the choir and as a soloist at the Greater Salem Baptist Church and soon was touring along with four other singers from the church.
By the mid-1930s Jackson was so well-known that she was invited to sing in Black churches all over the nation from New York to California. She sang songs of gospel composers such as T. A. Dorsey, songs which incorporated elements of earlier slave-music as well as the more recent ragtime, blues, and jazz. The uninhibited manner of her singing – she moved her whole body, stomped and shouted – at first appealed primarily to the smaller pentecostal churches. The larger churches of the Black bourgeoisie found her emotional style “undignified,” but she insisted that she was only following what the Bible had commanded: “Oh, clap your hands, all ye people! Shout unto the Lord with the voice of a trumpet!”
Jackson’s fame grew in the 1950s with appearances in Carnegie Hall and on the radio and television and with tours through Europe and Asia. Although she was now also a favorite of white audiences, Jackson still encountered racist discrimination in the southern states of the U.S. and even in Chicago, where her house in a white section of town was the target of gunshots. She was active in the Black Civil Rights Movement, and when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963, Jackson inspired the crowd by singing an old slave-song, now understood as a protest song.
Mahalia Jackson was married and divorced twice; her husbands were apparently not able to accept her independence and dedication as a serious religious singer in the long run. During her last years Jackson was often ill; she died in Evergreen Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, of a heart condition and was buried in New Orleans.
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