Monday, January 16, 2012

The content of her character

I’m old enough to remember Mahalia Jackson (1911 - 1972).

She didn’t really know how to sing, but boy, could she sing.
She wasn’t trained, but her voice was powerful. She took breaths in funny places. I once heard her sing “My country (breath) ’tih (breath) zov thee (breath) sweet land (breath) of lih (breath) bar tee (breath) of thee I (breath) sing.”

Southern gospel was what she was known for, songs like “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” and Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to name a few. Here’s your trivia fact for the day: Della Reese, at the age of 13, became a backup singer in Mahalia Jackson’s gospel group.

Mostly what got me every time I heard Mahalia Jackson sing, the thing that reached out and grabbed my attention, was her smile and her sparkling eyes. Love just seemed to ooze from her in all directions.

Eventually mainstream America became aware of her, and she became a “phenomenon” of sorts, appearing on such network television shows as Sesame Street, What’s My Line, The Flip Wilson Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Hollywood Palace.

I choose on this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday to post about a woman who had a great effect on Dr. King and undoubtedly helped shape him into the force for good that he became.

Here is Mahalia Jackson singing “Without A Song” (6:21) in Berlin in 1967.

Don’t critique her voice. Watch her face.

If you need a little help understanding the lyrics, here they are:

Without a song the day would never end
Without a song the road would never bend
When things go wrong, a man ain’t got a friend
Without a song

That field of corn would never see a plow
That field of corn would be deserted now
A man is born but he’s no good no-how
Without a song

I got my troubles and woe but sure as I know that Jordan will roll
I’ll get along as long as a song is strong in my soul

I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall
I’ll never know what makes the grass so tall
I only know there ain’t no love at all
Without a song.


  1. I'm sure she has a beautiful voice, but the song was going a bit too slow for me.
    I like the lyrics.

  2. Carolina, she does seem to be in slow motion, now that you mention it. I think that particular style of singing is appreciated most by listeners who already know the song and wish to relish the performance to the full. At least it seems that way to me.

  3. This perhaps isn't the best track to show off Mahalia Jackson's true talent.

    Although not trained,she had a powerful contralto tessitura that touched audiences and lives. She was another example of the triumph of good over adversity. Her life testimony is just beautiful.She glowed with the conviction of knowing that she was loved, transformed and accepted.

    Oh, how I wish that I could transport myself back in time to witness that March on Washington, to hear her voice ringing out "How I got over" and "I've been buked and I've been scorned" before Dr King rose to his feet to deliver his 'I have a dream' speech before a quarter of a million people.

    Can you imagine what that must have felt like to that woman, born disabled, growing up in squalid conditions with no mother, where she was forced to work from sunrise to sunset and school was not an option? A trophy of grace, indeed. x

  4. Elizabeth, I was 22 in 1963 and remember watching Dr. King's speech on television. Three months later President Kennedy was assassinated. Four and one-half years later, in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated, and less than two months after that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The world seemed to be falling apart in those days. In many ways, it still seems to be.

  5. I can well believe that, Bob. It paved the way for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and a move towards equality and freedom for blacks and minorities, but what a cruel price had to be paid for those freedoms that should have been a given in any human society.

    In 1963, my father was killed and I faced a world fallen apart in other ways. Wherever we are and no matter how big or small our devastations are in national and international terms, all we can do is make sure that we bring hope and peace to our own corners of the world and hold steadfast to the belief that when we see the complete picture we will discover that things were not falling apart but rather falling into place. I think that both Mahalia Jackson and Dr King knew - and continue to know - that truth.

    By the way, I've just caught up with the film, 'The Help'. Have you seen it? If so, I'd be interested to know what you think of it as someone who was a young man during that era. x

  6. I remember that series of assassinations even though I was just a kid. It impacted on us, even though it was so far away (the world was a bigger place then.)

    The words of the song are wonderful. In praise of songs: excellent sentiment. Music is such a big part of my life too.

  7. Elizabeth, Mrs. RWP and I have both read The Help but we haven't seen the film yet. We hear that it is very good. In fact, Octavia Spencer just won a Golden Globe the other night as outstanding actress in a supporting role. I also understand that Bryce Dallas Howard, who is also in the film, is the daughter of Ron Howard (Opie from The Andy Griffith Show). We both enjoyed the book.

    Katherine, I agree with your reaction to "Without A Song" -- did you know it is from a musical called Great Day? The lyrics were written by Billy Rose and the music was composed by Vincent Youmans.