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(Credit: U.S. Embassy New Delhi)

Music

Mahalia Jackson: A life of liberation and the voice of a generation

@TomTaylorFO

The times they are a-changing, they always have been, and they always will be. In her life, Mahalia Jackson became a paragon for the virtue of liberation as she assailed to the lofty pinnacle of performative heights and became the literal voice of a generation. Her story is one that embodies the changing landscape of culture and the society that it dragged along in its wake. She is not only one of the most influential singers of her generation, but her story itself holds a mirror to a century of rapid change.

In New Orleans, 1911, something was happening that has since been mythologised in the sprawled city’s folklore history. Almost 50 years earlier, slavery had been abolished, but the lives of freed Black people in the South remained highly precarious. The cagey nature of the arts reflected this tentativeness. However, the unifying and subversive nature of music began to bring people together and embolden change. And by the time that Mahalia Jackson was born, the New Orleans air was welcoming the near-mystic sound of the father of jazz: Buddy Bolden. His brave new music shot through the clouds of a harsh and hexed existence like an assegai into the blue of brighter days beyond.

While oppression was still rampant and dangers were everywhere, there was a hopeful boon in the air when Jackson was born, and it was this sanguine sound bustling around street corners and bursting out of open windows that illuminated a brighter future for the golden-voiced child. Born to former slaves and raised in poverty, she would soon ride this wave of liberating music until she found herself at the forefront, eventually selling an estimated 22 million records and spearheading progression.

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Initially, however, these first cresting ripples of daring jazz were kept away from surfacing on the shore of wider society. Like many, Jackson sought solace in the church which became a breeding ground for modern music by offering a sort of sanctuary where people could freely mingle and perform. As the punk poet John Cooper Clarke once said: “All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock ‘n’ roll.”

And the unlikely punk making an appearance in this story even offers a second notion as to why — “The greatest threat to any artist is surrounding themselves with people who love everything they do. You need somebody to, ‘I wouldn’t do that one if I were you.” The church was both a sanctuary for Jackson and an essential cautioning word for her and indeed all black performers pushing for progress. This naysaying was vital in bringing a visceral rocking edge to the music that began to depart the altar.

Popular culture is a mixed-up milieu that unfurls in a kaleidoscopic blur with no clear beginning, middle, or end, just like some mad mass of creative atoms bumping and bonding, forming new off-shoots and mutating the old. Churches were a mixing pot themselves and soon the stew of gospel that began pouring out would help to bring about pop music in which it still echoes to this day.

When Jackson was a child in the churches of New Orleans she heard, hidden within the hymns, the sounds of a muted revolution to come. When slaves were originally shipped over from West Africa, many were followers of Vodou, who later had Catholicism enforced upon them. Rather than drown out the Vodou tunes of old, it merely formed a fusion. The drums and rhythms may well have been abandoned out of necessity, but Gospel songs became a cacophony where Vodou and hymns met. The same sense of profound exultation was present, and the drums were vocalised in the chants and incantations of singalong songs of soul salvation.

Amid this buoyant sense of identity and celebration, Jackson felt emboldened. Thus, when she moved to Chicago as an adolescent, she quickly joined the Johnson Singers and formed one of the earliest known gospel groups. Her group played when and where they could, but despite being lauded with praise she was still what she referred to as “a fish and bread” singer, living hand-to-mouth and supporting herself with odd jobs away from performing. This is a sign of the times in two ways; on the one hand, the world wasn’t ready to fully embrace her music, but on the other hand, there was enough hope and support to keep her going. Change was slowly starting to seed, and it had a soundtrack of gospel, blues and jazz.

Having travelled from the South to North and never been too far from the church, Jackson understood more than most that music was merging, and each style was colouring the same canvas. Although most certainly a gospel singer, there was enough swing to her style to start capturing the attention of a legion of jazz fans. By the time 1947 came around, she raised the voice of gospel into new jazzy territory and as a result, her song ‘Move On Up a Little Higher’ became a breakthrough hit. It sold 2 million copies and allowed her to become the first gospel artist to travel the jazz circuit of Europe. 

Therein, Jackson would be greeted by non-segregated audiences, and this stoked a subversive flame and brought about progression. Slowly but surely Jackson’s stardom would skyrocket as she appeared increasing on television and radio. With each performance, her songs of unity would deliver an unflinching message that her rise also signified in an emblematic sense. The culmination of this would come in 1961 when Jackson performed the national anthem at John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. 

She believed that deep down people were inherently good and that this was worth celebrating. With that, she argued, progress would triumph. As she stated: “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.” Thus, when Martin Luther King Jr. called upon her, she didn’t flinch in making the daring journey back down south to her homelands.

Thereafter, Mahalia Jackson sang at Selma, the March on Washington and King’s funeral. Along the way, she inspired a new generation of musicians from all walks of life. The defining moment of her inspiring journey came moments before King’s iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. She stood before a crowd of 250,000, spoke of the journey of her people, and delivered an entreaty that stirred millions into motion as she belted out ‘How I Got Over’ in a cleansing wash of rhapsody. For her, this might have been a religious moment, but for many, it spoke a secular message just as profoundly, welcoming gospel into the mix of rock ‘n’ roll. 

From there the likes of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez and swathes of other artists would take up her mantle and as the thrill of sonic invention joined the stew, she would in some ways be left behind. However, her howl was far too mighty to go quiet and if you ask any artist who knew her, they’ll tell you how she still echoes in modern music to this day, bringing a promising message that still needs repeating even louder. 

She passed away in 1972 after a lifetime in music, but her voice and its message certainly lives on.