Throughout her celebrated career, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) used her rich, forceful voice and inspiring interpretations of spirituals to move audiences around the world to tears of joy. In the early days, as a soloist and member of church choirs, she recognized the power of song as a means of gloriously reaffirming the faith of her flock. And later, as a world figure, her natural gift brought people of different religious and political convictions together to revel in the beauty of the gospels and to appreciate the warm spirit that underscored the way she lived her life.
The woman who would become known as the "Gospel Queen" was born on October 26, 1911 into a poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Jacksons' Water Street home, a shack between the railroad tracks and the levee of the Mississippi River, was served by 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 long-shoreman, 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.
Sounds of New Orleans
As a child, Mahalia was taken in by the sounds of New Orleans. She listened to the rhythms of the woodpeckers, the rumblings of the trains, the whistles of the steamboats, the songs of sailors and street peddlers. When the annual festival of Mardi Gras arrived, the city erupted in music. In her bedroom at night, young Mahalia would quietly sing the songs of blues legend Bessie Smith.
But Jackson's close relatives disapproved of the blues, a music indigenous to southern black culture, saying it was decadent and claiming that the only acceptable songs for pious Christians were the gospels of the church. In gospel songs, they told her, music was the cherished vehicle of religious faith. As the writer Jesse Jackson (not related 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 (the nickname by which she was known as a child) 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.… "She became known as "the little girl with the big voice."
At 16, with only an eighth grade education but a strong ambition to become a nurse, Jackson went to Chicago to live with her Aunt Hannah. In the northern city, to which thousands of southern blacks had migrated after the Civil War to escape segregation, she earned a living by washing white people's clothes for a dollar a day. After searching for the right church to join, a place whose music spoke to her, she ended up at the Greater Salem Baptist Church, to which her aunt belonged. At her audition for the choir, Jackson's thunderous voice rose above all the others. She was invited to be a soloist and started singing with a quintet that performed at funerals and church services throughout the city. In 1934, she received $25 for her first recording, "God's Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares."
Though she sang traditional hymns and spirituals almost exclusively, Jackson continued to be fascinated by 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 that if he recovered she would never even enter a theater again, much less sing songs of which he would disapprove. He did recover, 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 continued to turn down lucrative requests to sing in nightclubs-she was offered as much as $25,000 a performance in Las Vegas-even when the club owners promised not to serve whisky while she performed. 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 was quoted as saying in Harper's magazine in 1956. "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."
Singing Career Blossomed
In 1939, Jackson started touring with renowned composer Thomas A. Dorsey. 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 she was practicing in a recording studio, a representative from Decca Records overheard her sing an old spiritual she had learned as a child. He advised her to record it, and a few weeks later she did. "Move On Up a Little Higher" became her signature song. The recording sold 100,000 copies overnight and soon passed the two million dollar mark. "It sold like wildfire," Alex Haley wrote in Reader's Digest. "Negro disk jockeys played it; Negro ministers praised it from their pulpits. When sales passed one million, the Negro press hailed Mahalia Jackson as 'the only Negro whom Negroes have made famous."'
Jackson began touring again, only this time she did it not as the hand-to-mouth singer who had toured with Dorsey years before. She bought a Cadillac big enough for her to sleep in when she was performing in areas with hotels that failed to provide accommodations for blacks. She also stored food in the car so that when she visited the segregated South she wouldn't have to sit in the backs of restaurants. Soon the emotional and resonant singing of the "Gospel Queen," as she had become known, began reaching the white community as well. She appeared regularly on Studs Terkel's radio show and was ultimately given her own radio and television programs.
On October 4, 1950, Jackson played to a packed house of blacks and whites at New York's Carnegie Hall. She recounted 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."' In her book, she also described a conversation with a reporter who asked her 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." 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.
Participated in Civil Rights Struggles
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., Jackson participated in the Montgomery bus boycott. This action had been prompted 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.
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. Christian Century magazine reported that her funeral was attended by over six thousand fans. Singer Ella Fitzgerald described Jackson as "one of our greatest ambassadors of love … this wonderful woman who only comes once in a lifetime."
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."
Further Reading on Mahalia Jackson
Goreau, L., Just Mahalia, Baby, Pelican, 1975.
Jackson, Jesse, Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord!, G.K. Hall, 1974.
Jackson, Mahalia, and Wylie, Evan McLeod, Movin' On Up, Hawthorne Books, 1966.
Schwerin, Jules, Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel, Oxford, 1992.
Christian Century, March 1, 1972.
Ebony, March 1972, April 1972.
Harper's, August 1956.
Reader's Digest, November 1961.
Saturday Review, September 27, 1958.