*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 26th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
If you have Apple Music or Spotify I’d like to recommend you jump over to one of our newer projects at 1517. 1517 Music made its debut with a 4 track live album recorded at one of our regional events. Blake Flattley and his crew start out with a little Hank Williams and then move on to some modern interpretations of hymns like For All the Saints and Abide With Me.
I bring that up because 1. I think it's good and 2. because it fits with our theme for today as we remember the mother of all Gospel music on the 110th anniversary of her birth. It was on the 26th of October in 1911 that Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans.
The quick beats from her life give us quite the story. She grew up going to church (her father was a minister) but loved the emerging blues scene in New Orleans with icons like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She had to listen to these albums secretly but began to bring some of the raucousness and soul of the blues to her choir singing. That and a voice with range and power like few others set her up to be a star among the likes of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
But she didn’t want to sing secular music nor did she wish to sing in jazz clubs or other venues she associated with vice. She may well have been a local church celebrity and that’s it- but she joined other Gospel singers to tour. And it was here that the world realized she was not just another strong voice- but the equal to Bessie Smith. She took the emotion of Smith and redirected it towards holy things- her version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” was an instant classic.
She would be courted by major labels, but usually with the insistence that she record their songs and play the venues they told her to play. She insisted on her way and eventually began recording gospel records on major labels. She would be a guest on the Dinah Shore Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. A friend of hers, when asked what made her so good responded “she enjoyed her religion”.
Her themes were the deep love of God in the midst of suffering, the eventual justice of God in light of crippling injustices, and a Jesus, who as “the man of sorrows” could empathize with the plight of the downtrodden.
She was compared to Jackie Robinson for breaking the boundaries to which many African American signers had placed on them by record labels. She sang what she wanted to sing and how she wanted to sing it. And, despite the concerns of the record labels, she was embraced by white audiences. For most of her career, she didn’t sing standards but brought the gospel to the major market airwaves.
While active in the Civil Rights movement she didn’t march herself but instead sang at benefit concerts to raise bail for those that were arrested. Before Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington it was Ms. Jackson singing the gospel. In fact, he was such a fan of Jackson that he often asked her for advice. The day before the march and his speech, King was admittedly stuck and decided he needed to rewrite his speech. He asked Mahalia for advice and she said “tell them about the dream, Martin”. And “I Have A Dream” was born.
She would begin to sing at popular, secular venues. She performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Newport Jazz Festival (she did however request that she and her guest musicians stick to the Gospel theme). In 1976 the Grammys wanted to honor her but were unsure as to what genre she would fit. They invented the Gospel category for her that year and it’s been awarded ever since.
Reading a biography of Mahalia I was struck by how pure her motives seemed but how she could get in her own way. Her personal life was fraught with problems, and unease as a black celebrity in a segregated world, her own hot temper, and eventually cancer that took her life.
Her songs told us about Jesus, but it was not just an artistic decision. She needed the Jesus that she sang about. I’ve been thinking a lot about the place of music in the Christian life. When we get together, we sing. The biggest book in the Bible is filled with songs. Do yourself a favor- go to your favorite streaming service, click on 1517 Music but then go to Mahalia’s catalog and listen up. We remember the Queen of Gospel Music on this, the anniversary of her birth OTD in 1911.
The reading comes from Psalm 27- a favorite of Mahalia Jackson:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 26th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite queens include the Queen of Gospel Music, Freddie’s Band, and Dairy. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man, like the rest of us not in Houston, a temporary Braves Fan. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.