|Mahalia Jackson, once and future gospel queen|
Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sings at the Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom held on
May 17, 1957, in Washington. UMNS photo courtesy of the NAACP Collection.
A UMNS Commentary
By David Briggs*
Feb. 1, 2010
We had one source of music at home when I was in grade school – a plastic, cream-and-brown colored “record player” set atop a cabinet in my parents’ bedroom.
It was not until this group from England called The Beatles overwhelmed the national consciousness and I bought my first singles, called 45s, that I even paid much attention to the larger world of music.
What struck me, however, as I listened to “Help” and “She Loves You” (yeah, yeah, yeah) was how many of the few albums in my father’s record collection were by a gospel singer – an African-American woman named Mahalia Jackson.
This 1962 portrait of Mahalia Jackson was taken by fine art photographer Carl Van Vechten. A Library of Congress photo from the Van Vechten Collection.
Decades later, I understand. Half of the relatively few CDs I own are by Mahalia. The combination of her remarkable voice and the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit brings me closer to God every time I listen.
On Jan. 27, the 38th anniversary of her death at age 60, nothing has been lost of the enduring power of her music. She is the once and future queen of gospel music.
Almost everything anyone needs to understand about the Christian faith can be found in the Gospel according to Mahalia.
A call to Christian living
One cannot help but engage with the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross listening to Mahalia sing “Calvary.” She repeats the title six times in the beginning of the song, sustaining each syllable in a cascade of haunting, soulful notes that leave us no place to go but back to the cross.
If you want to delight in the glory of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, let Mahalia lift your spirits with her renditions of that “Great Gettin’ Up Morning” or “Move On Up a Little Higher.”
What Mahalia also reminds us is that Christian living involves submitting to God’s will.
In the midst of Democratic and Republican politicians appealing to our most selfish instincts, liberal and conservative Christians judging and demonizing one another and any number of commercial messages urging us to place ourselves on the altar, Mahalia is right on time and right in the Wesleyan tradition singing, “Without God I Could Do Nothing.”
Instead of telling God and other Christians how they should act, she cuts to the heart of the Christian calling singing, “Search me Lord … You know when I'm right. You know when I'm wrong.”
And for those times when the journey is long, and we are tired and full of sorrow, she is there with the comforting words Thomas Dorsey gave her to sing in the song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Mahalia would be a balm to the mourners at the funeral of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with her anointed singing of that gospel classic, and listeners today still sense the Holy Spirit by their side as she sings:
“Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I'm tired, I’m weak, Lord I’m worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”
There is only one song that is too raw and painful for me to listen to. “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” is a powerful lament for a beloved parent.
I substitute the word “father” and think of my own dad. He died in 1982, before he could attend my wedding or hold his grandchild, or be there through many of the markers of my adult life. It is hard to put into words how strong my love for him is so many years after his death.
Yet if it is too gut-wrenching to hear Mahalia sing about her mother the way I feel about my father, there is a sense of peace and reassurance whenever I hear her sing other songs of faith. Part of that feeling is because she represents a tangible connection to my father.
What this woman, blessed with a powerful voice for good, and this gentle man, blessed with a quiet dignity, had in common was a faith that bore the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Mahalia and my father will never stop guiding me in this life. On that “Great Gettin’ Up Morning,” they are two of the first people I will be looking for.
*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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