African American Community By 1945, nearly everyone in the African American community had heard gospel music (2). At this time, gospel music was a sacred folk music with origins in field hollers, work songs, slave songs, Baptist lining hymns, and Negro spirituals. These songs that influenced gospel music were adapted and reworked into expressions of praise and thanks of the community. Although the harmonies were similar to those of the blues or hymns in that they shared the same simplicity, the rhythm was much different. The rhythms often times had the music with its unique accents, the speech, walk, and laughter which brought along with it synchronized movements.
(2) The gospel piano style was based on the rhythm section concept, where the middle of the piano was used to support the singers. This area supported the singers by doubling the vocal line in harmony. The bottom, left corner of the piano was used as a bass fiddle while the upper right hand portion played the counter melodies, taking the place of a trumpet or flute. It was the right hand corner that filled in the material during the rhythmic breaks. Often times the text of the gospel songs portrayed meanings of the Trinity, blessings, thanks and lamentations.
The singers used the voices to communicate their feelings about Christianity. Many singers sang through the problems and moved their audiences, often congregations, so much so that the audience forgot their own problems temporarily and the weights of the world were taken away through the music. (2) During the beginning of the Golden Age of Gospel (1945-1955), gospel music reached a near perfection and had a huge, devote audience. The call and response form in particular flourished in the new type of music. The African American gospel song had a unique power and ability to overcome. It was a means of transcending the listeners, singers and entire congregation to a higher spiritual and emotional level.
During the post-Civil War years, the congregation style of singing was transformed by the new Pentecostal congregations, also known as Holiness and Sanctified. (5) African American gospel music was a twentieth century phenomenon which evolved through the people that moved from rural communities to urban centers in cities. They left their areas of limited promise and social and economic terror in hopes of starting over. (4) Gospel was s style of repertoire and singing. The music was delivered as a high powered spiritual force.
The emphasis was placed on the vocal rhythms. Gospel music combined call and response forms, with slow-metered , lined out protestant hymns. Born in 1912, Mahalia Jackson was the third of six children. Growing up in segregated, racist times, Mahalia lived in what she called a “shotgun shack”. White folks owned the bars and grocery stores of the neighborhood.
Blacks were left with the left over jobs, often working for white families, or working on the railroad tracks. Mahalias father found work on the riverfront, dock towns and on the boats. On Sundays, her father worked preaching in a Baptist church. For as hard as her parents worked, money always seemed to be short. When Mahalia was only five years old, her mother died. Her father remarried and acquired a whole new family with the marriage.
Although she never earned any pay for her work, Mahalia began doing chores for her Aunt Duke after school. Both sets of Mahalias grandparents were born into slavery and she was doomed to head the same way. When Mahalia was in eight grade, she began to look for work outside of her aunts chores and got a job as a laundress. (4) When Mahalia finally became famous, she always demanded her payments in cash, paid up-front. The reason for her requests was because often times during her childhood years, they never received the payments they worked hard to receive. They would often be cheated out of their sums because plantation owners claimed that the money they earned was equal to their fees for room and board.
(1) When Mahalia was just a small child, everyone that knew her agreed that she possessed something special. At eight years old, she had an uncommonly large voice. Using her talented voice both in and outside of church, she gained much praise. She of acquired a rich range spirituals and hymns. (5)Living in New Orleans, music was all around her and the city was filled with performing bands, pianists and various other types of musicians.
It was almost as if everyone in the city of New Orleans knew how to play a musical instrument or sing a song. The new music was being produced for and by blacks. It because a tradition to hire brass bands to lead the funeral parade. This is only one small example of the good time spirit of the city. To them, they cried at the incoming of child and rejoiced at the outgoing.
Death was something that was celebrated, not feared. This type of music played after burying the dead was called Second Line music. People would line the curbs and the returning band and dancing crowd often times attracted many fans. Despite the fact that someone had died, people were always happy. (1) The music meant something to them. It was the music of their souls and it was part of the New Orleans people and they way they did things. (3) When Mahalia moved up North she said that a lot of people questioned her about the way she sang religious songs.
She would tell these people that she sang the songs the way she grew up hearing them. Many people think that is sounds like jazz, but to her she knew no different as a small child. Mahalia saw little difference between gospel and folk music. Some people claim that since Gospel and folk songs didnt take a lot of long studying, then they were ashamed by them. (1) They were considered simple songs of peoples hearts. People figured that if a song came from the heart then it must be too easy and should not be considered “art”, as we know it.
These peoples opinions angered Mahalia and she strongly disagreed with them. She liked to sing gospel songs for herself. There were times when she felt like she was so far from God and the gospel songs were deep and had special meanings. They could bring back the communication and connection between oneself and God. (2) Mahalia first heard Bessie Smiths song, “Careless Love” when her cousin, Young Fred, brought home the new recordings.
Young Fred was Aunt Dukes son and he and Mahalia were very close growing up. Mahalia and Fred would listen to the new recordings for hours on Freds phonograph, helping to ease a long, tiresome day of school and work. Outside of Mahalias family, the thing of next most importance in her life was her church, Mount Moriah Baptist Church. (3) She claims that it was the foot tapping and hand clapping of the congregation in her church that she credit for her bounce of her music. She enjoyed singing the songs, which testified the glory of the Lord.
A Baptist all her life, it was actually her adoration of the Sanctified or Holiness church that affected her life and art. Although the Baptists had an organ and sang songs, the Sanctified Church had cymbals, drums, strings and tambourines that went along with the beat of vigorous hand clapping. Mahalia go so into the church music that she claims she was carried away by the spirit and the passion that filled her as she performed literally transported her out of herself. Mahalia always loved the church because of its powerful music. From her experiences in the church, she grew to sing the way she does today. (1) It was the way the preacher would sing, chant, cry, moan and shout in a groaning way that penetrated into her and other members of the congregations hearts.
(1) Fred, Mahalias cousin and good friend was killed in an after-hours saloon brawl. This was her signal that she needed to move on with her life and get out of her Aunts house where she was abused. (1) She was ready to move out of adolescence and experience what life had to offer for her. The music that Mahalia and Fred listened to as children, (Dixieland music from various dance halls in their town) was music for the common people. She was out to seek her new musical destiny on a fresh, new place.
Mahalia and her Aunt Hannah boarded the Illinois Central for a three-day trip to Chicago. The accommodations were “separate yet equal” according to the Supreme Courts decision in 1893, yet Mahalia and her aunt found themselves eating the food they had brought themselves since they were not allowed in the dining room, in packed, unheated conditions. (5) Upon arriving in Chicago, Mahalia found a job in the laundries working at a wash job. While she dreamed of becoming a nurse, she was faced with a wash job, or the option to work for a white family on the rich North Side. Her choices were ones of dirty, hard work and long workdays but she knew she had no other choice.
In her new home, on of her top priorities was finding a new church. Her aunt brought her along to the Greater Salem Baptist Church where she was warmly welcomed and became a member of their choir almost immediately. Although she was living in poor conditions, working hard for little to no money, she kept her faith, knowing that the Lord had his arms around her. She credits the Depression for her whole career in gospel singing because it was these experiences that helped shape who she was and her way of life. (3) Mahalia became a member of the Johnson Singers, a group that sang in neighborhood churches for minimal money. Eventually this group began to work its way up and performed as headliners for the out-of-town Baptist conventions.
Mahalias first and last music lesson took place at the South Side music school, by a tenor, Professor DuBois, a man of local fame. As her lesson progressed we can see why she never wanted to return. Her teacher, Mr. DuBois, told her that she had better stop hollering and insisted that she would have a better appeal with the white people, who would better understand her singing. She was thoroughly insulted to say the least and never desired another lesson.
(5) At the age of twenty-three, the year being 1935, Mahalia was still living in Chicago and finally found the love of her life. Isaac Hockenhull, a friend from the many church sponsored socials that she attended, was the lucky man. Isaac knew he wanted to marry Mahalia and was convinced that she could get her voice trained so she could become a concert artist. In 1938, the two were married and lived happily together for a few years to come. Mahalia opened her own business as a hairdresser and soon expanded to sell cosmetics. (1) Next, she added a floral shop to her list and they were doing very well financially.
Ike was still convinced that Mahalia needed to take her vocal talents one step further and convinced her to meet with Madame Anita Patty Brown, who had once been an opera singer and was a celebrated voice of the South Side. Although the lesson went well, Mahalia had her mind set on singing gospel and she disregarded Ikes input if it suggested anything different. While taking voice lessons from Madame Brown, Mahalia was also working with Thomas Dorsey, the choirmaster for many of the Baptist churches in Chicago and the leading gospel composer. Ike presented Mahalia with another opportunity. He had heard that the Federal Theater project was in the area and they were casting a production called “The Hot Mikado”.
Mahalia auditioned and won a leading role but refused the job. Things between Ike and Mahalia began to worsen and they were beginning to come apart over gospel singing. Ike had a gambling problem, which didnt help their relationship, and they separated and eventually got a divorce, continuing to remain friends. (4) In 1933, Mahalia was given the opportunity to return to New Orleans and visit her family. When attending a tent show back home in Greenville, she met the acquaintance of an eight-year-old boy named John Sellers.
She was very impressed with his talents and they two remained friends. John would often stop by randomly to visit Mahalia and he turned toward Mahalia as a role model. Living with his Aunt Carrie, John got kicked out of the house over a disagreement and moved in with Mahalia was said that her home was his home. An opportunity knocked on Mahalias door when he was offered a job working for a family in a small South Side apartment. (5)This family, the MacIvers, employed John and gave him his own apartment and five dollars a week. Still staying in touch with Mahalia, John attended church with her one Sunday afternoon and joined her in singing.
John Sellers quickly became known as “Brother John” in the church circle and his relationship with Mahalia began to slip away. (3) In Mahalias first performing days in Chicago, many of the ministers rejected her. They claimed that Mahalia had a tendency to shake and twist about which were movements, which were inappropriate for the pulpit. She agreed to their conditions to wear suitable clothing/robes and concealed her vaulting feelings. (1) Right after V-J Day, Louis Terkel, a well-known Chicago raconteur, started a radio program he called “The Wax Museum” on the station WENR. Terkel was the first to introduce black entertainers and ethnic music on the white airwaves of Chicago.
He played the recording of “Im Goin to Tell God All About It” on his 78 record. He asked Mahalia Jackson to come on his show for an interview and she agreed. Her airtime introduced her to the world beyond her church community. Mahalias call and response, give and take, and her body, hand and foot movements were mesmerizing. Her radio appearances brought a new beat, a musical stirring to white ears that they had never heard before. She surprised her audience with a celebratory life force and a segregated healing sound that had sustained black people in their anguish and acted as a separator from the mainstream of American life.
The sounds that Mahalia could create so magnificently helped white embrace gospel for the first time, as they had already accepted jazz and blues. (1) In 1946 Mahalia met the acquaintance of Bess Berman, a woman of New York in the recording business. Bess fell in love with Mahalias gospel voice and signed her for a recording contract. She promised Mahalia $10,000 a year but her music was not being accepted as well as they had hoped. Bess allowed Mahalia one more chance to revive the interest of the listeners.
Mahalia was determined that she could add her own unique swinging style to a song by Reverend Brewster, called “Move On Up a Little Higher”, a song that had not moved far out of the black church circle. Her idea proved to be extremely successful and produced royalties of over $300,000 for Mahalia in the first year alone. Mahalia was unaware the a woman by the name of Rosetta Tharp was a competitor of hers in the gospel field and had a contract previous to hers with Jukebox Berman. Tharps contract included veto power on any gospel competitor that Berman might want to sign. Mahalia was outraged but was forced to stop recording any jukebox numbers. That was not the last that Mahalia heard from Rosetta.
The Golden Gate in Harlem was redesigned to an auditorium and became the mecca for gospel and jazz. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Rosetta Tharp, and Mahalia Jackson were star performers. (1) In 1951, Joe Bostic, Mahalias church agent decided to take a very big gamble. He wanted to expand his horizons for his gospel clients and rented Carnegie Hall. This gamble turned out to be a great success and every seat sold out! That evening broke all house records, including the ones set by Toscanini and Benny Goodman.
By 1955, Mahalia was no longer working with Bess Bermans Apollo Records, but had moved on to Columbia Records. Columbia Records called Mahalia “the worlds greatest gospel singer”. (2) Working along side of Mahalia and also deserving much recognition is Mildred Falls, Mahalias pianist and organist. In the summer of 1951, Mahalia and Mildred were invited to attend the Music Inn, a prestigious summer school of the Greenwich community as guests of Marshall Stearns, the Inns creator. Stearns knew Mahalia’s recordings from Apollo Records very well and invited the two to spend the weekend in the jazz “think tank”. Mahalia strongly believed that every man and woman needed something to believe in, something they could look up to.
For Mahalia, it was the gospel that she believed in and it was the gospel that uplifted her. She saw nothing wrong with selling the gospel in the market place as long as it was pure and untainted. (4) Beginning in the mid-1930s vocal ministers and board members of black churches opposed, resented and were horrified of the decent of gospel songs into wide popularity. Mahalia did what came natural to her and gained great fame through her unique style. Although she broke every rule of concert singing from breathing in the middle of a word and garbling words together, her full throated feelings and expressions made up the difference! While at the Music Inn, Hammond sought out Mahalia and wished to talk to her about her recording future. Representing Columbia, he reminded Mahalia that her current contract with Bess Berman was under shaky conditions, considering that Bess was under financial stress. Columbia offered Mahalia more money then Bess in the future.
In 1952, the agreement between Mahalia and Bess began to shatter. At this point, Mahalia picked up the phone and called Mitch Miller, the contract negotiator for Columbia and asked that he send her a contract. Although she did not jump to sign the contract when it arrived, on Easter Sunday night, Mahalia felt that she had received a sign from god and signed the contract immediately. (5) A friend of Mahalias, Stern Terkel, took on a position working at the CBS radio show in 1954, when Mahalia learned that the show needed a staff writer. CBS did not support the idea of having Terkel work for them but they agreed to Mahalias requests as long as they both under …