The Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson brought the presence of God to the world
Gospel music has been a part of African American culture since the age of slavery. This isn’t something we think about, especially since most people don’t like to reflect on slavery. In addition to that, there’s a new generation of African Americans who don’t agree with Christianity. They express their disdain for the Christian religion associating it with slavery.
Regardless of what you believe, there is no denying the fact that African Americans sang hymns to get them through tough times or to simply help pass time. These hymns represent the strength that was necessary to carry on. They also symbolize the faith of the people and illustrated their joy despite their trauma.
Faith seemingly served its purpose as those same hymns and more are now sang by recording artists. Gospel music is officially a music genre and vocalists can now sing their praises as a career. The gospel, rather spoken or sung is supposed to touch your soul. This supposed music of the slaves has become a worldwide endowment.
The music makes me feel free
Mahalia Jackson was one of the most influential gospel singers in the world. She was born in October of 1911. Her birth name was Mahala Jackson and she grew up in uptown New Orleans, Louisiana with the nickname Halie. Her family lived in a three-room dwelling that housed a total of 13 people. One of her cousins living in the house introduced her to blues music and she fell in love.
Singing was the light of her life as her home life was very dark. Mahalia’s mother died when she was very young and after that, she and her brother were poorly mistreated and overworked by their family. Music was her refuge and singing at church growing up was the highlight of her young life.
When she was 16, Mahalia and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois. Many African Americans living in the south were beginning to move north as part of the Great Migration during this time. They believed there was a better opportunity in the north and in Mahalia’s case it was the perfect opportunity. When the moment came she was well prepared so she sang one of her favorite songs “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel”. Shortly after that, she was invited to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir.
She was living her dream touring the city’s churches and surrounding areas. Two years later in 1929, she met the composer Thomas A. Dorsey who gave her musical advice. After meeting, they began a 14-year touring association. At this point in her career, she refused to sing secular music. She stood very firm on this. So much so, that she divorced her husband after only 5 years of marriage as a result of him pressuring her.
The truth will always set you free
Mahalia had a collection of records in her 20’s although none of these gained much recognition or success. However, this would change in 1948. She recorded the William Herbert Brewster song “Move On Up a Little Higher”, which became so successful it made up for everything before it. The recording was so popular stores could not supply the demand. Overall it sold eight million copies. Soon after that she was famous in the U.S., and eventually in Europe.
Her life changed instantly and she went from performing in churches to appearing in concert halls. Throughout all of these changes and new found fame, she remained true to her stance against singing secular music. Mahalia Jackson’s career sprouted and continued to grow. She continued to release successful recordings and tour throughout the ’50s.
During this time her voice became instrumental in the civil rights movement. Her passion, associations, and experiences encouraged her to lend her voice to the cause proudly. One of her experiences was the discrimination she faced trying to purchase real estate in Chicago. When she did find a property to settle in her neighbors began threatening her safety before they moved out of the neighborhood. She may have been a world-renowned star, but this did not negate the fact that others disliked the color of her skin.
Mahalia Jackson’s beautiful, soulful, contralto voice captivated audiences. The genuine emotion she brought to the songs she sang reflected in her life. She lived her life with purpose and enjoyed singing the gospel of God to the world. Singing gospel was certainly her choice and she continuously turned down money to sing secular music entire career. She is quoted saying, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free”.
Some things in life are bigger than us. Sometimes we must make decisions that are unselfish. Mahalia could have easily made more money outside of singing gospel music., but she had a message to deliver. The message she carried was bigger than her.
Before leaving us in 1972 Mahalia Jackson had a long career that left an impactful legacy. She has several honors and awards recognizing her accomplishments. The one thing she left us with along with her music and accomplishments is her character. She showed us if you don’t stand for something you may fall for anything.
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