The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church
Got to Tell it: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel
Moments before he was shot in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr:, leaned over the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel and spoke to a group of men standing in the courtyard below. He asked one of them, the saxophonist Ben Branch, to have his band play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at a rally for the city’s black sanitation workers, who were embroiled in a long and bitter strike. King was in town to support their lost cause, and had preached enough funerals in black churches to know he could rely on the song’s bracing effects.
The man who wrote “Precious Lord,” Thomas A. Dorsey, died last January at the age of ninety-three. His obituaries all identified him as “The Father of Gospel Music.” Many of us have heard his music but never knew his name. “Precious Lord” became the most famous anthem of the modern black church, so ingrained in the South that on his deathbed Frank Clement, a former governor of Tennessee, asked that it be played at his funeral. Dorsey wrote another song, “Peace In The Valley,” that is a permanent item in the Elvis Presley catalog. His great achievement was to transmute blues into sacred song, and this had important consequences for both the black church and American popular music. But he was mostly overlooked by scholars until Michael Harris wrote his study The Rise of Gospel Blues. In it, Harris has also assembled Dorsey’s own account of his first forty years, pieced together from interviews, an unpublished autobiography, speeches, and other scatterings.
Dorsey was born in 1900, in the west Georgia country town of Villa Rica. He was a child of the children of the black South who were delivered out of bondage into peonage at the end of the Civil War. His father, Thomas Madison Dorsey, was one of those “highly trainable young black men” whom the succoring agencies of church and state hoped to find after the Civil War among the formerly enslaved. Thomas Madison Dorsey graduated from one of the Negro colleges these missionaries helped to start—Augusta Baptist Institute, progenitor of Morehouse—and was ordained a “competent, consecrated Christian leader for the uplift of his race.”
Many of the first slaves had been dispersed among the South Atlantic colonies, where they were half-heartedly proselytized by Anglicans. They were generally as unwarmed by this version of religion that seemed to them to come out of books as they were unwelcomed by its adherents. But Baptists and Methodists, who had entered the colonies as a trickle of radical sectarians, had a strong appeal among the ill-lettered, the landless, and the scorned. Baptists believed, as West Africans did, in adult rebirth and spirit possession. When descendants of Africa encountered these others trembling “in the spirit,” writhing on the floor, jabbering indecipherably, they saw for the first time manifestations in white people of something they could identify as genuine religious expression.
By 1860, nearly all of this country’s four-and-a-half million black residents were already second, third, and fourth generation Americans. They found their common voice in language they fashioned from what they heard here and from what they remembered from Africa. They made a faith of their own out of the religion they were taught here and the habits of belief that lingered with them after the memory of their original African places was gone. Afro-Christianity fused these fragments of West Africa into an American tribe. For a long time their churches were the only institutions black people made and owned for themselves. For these reasons the church was central to African American life.
After his ordination in 1894, Thomas Madison Dorsey confounded the expectations of his sponsors, the American Home Mission Society, by forgoing a settled pastorate. His travels brought him to Villa Rica, where he met and married Etta Plant Spencer, a widow who had been born into deep country poverty and had improved herself enough to acquire some land, some education, and an organ. Her properties and his profession certified the Dorseys as members of the black elite of Carroll County, Georgia. But these were not enough to spare the head of the house from needing to sharecrop, pastor two churches, and teach school all in the same day to keep his growing family afloat.
His early childhood left behind in Thomas Madison Dorsey’s eldest son, Thomas, the habit of associating music and ministry with status and approbation. But he also learned that his mother’s refinement and his father’s education put together couldn’t support the family. The Dorseys became casualties of the agrarian depression that had settled over the South late in the nineteenth century. In 1908 they moved off their land into Atlanta, where Thomas M. Dorsey tended white people’s grounds and gardens, and never preached again.
His son’s young life came unmoored in the city. When he entered school in Atlanta he was put back into first grade. He was acutely conscious of being on the wrong end of stratified, Atlanta Negro society, felt he was “looked upon as…common…dark-skinned, poor, shabbily-dressed and homely-looking.” He started hanging around music and vaudeville houses on Decatur Street in black Atlanta’s downtown. When he finished fourth grade he was thirteen years old. He left school and made the theaters his classrooms, where he studied piano players and set about learning to play. He taught himself to read and write music from books. He had extraordinary facility, the kind of ear and memory that enabled him to hear something once and then reproduce it exactly. It was no empty boast for Thomas A. Dorsey later to say that he had made himself an accomplished musician when he was fourteen.
In those days piano players were functional equivalents of jukeboxes or record players. Dorsey played wherever he could, and before long found favor around town, as much for his quiet touch as for his precocious, idiomatic command of blues songs and popular standards. When he was fifteen, he began to think of himself as a working musician, albeit one whose services could be had for pocket change, “all the food [he] could eat, all the liquor [he] could drink, and a good looking woman to fan [him].” He already considered himself a star in the dim little firmament of Atlanta’s rent-party piano players, and felt he had exhausted all local possibilities.
In 1916 Dorsey got a job at a Philadelphia shipyard by answering one of the advertisements posted in those days on billboards above street corners in Atlanta, enticing thousands to leave the South in this earliest of the several cycles of black migration. Dorsey set out for Philadelphia by way of Chicago, where his uncle lived, and which was then bustling with upsouth traffic. Once he landed in Chicago, Dorsey never willingly left it for long.
He made a niche in its after-hours “buffet houses,” where, as in Atlanta, the relative subtleties of his style had the practical advantage of not annoying the neighbors enough to provoke them into calling the police. He became known around these establishments as “the whispering piano player.” His small successes reinforced his confidence. He recognized that his ability to elaborate on “popular numbers and drag them out” could be the basis of a commercial blues style.
Dorsey was a student of his game even before it had rules. The best paying jobs were in structured settings like bands and theaters, where players needed written parts, and he recognized the need for someone to prepare and arrange their music. That was “where the money was.” In 1920, he enrolled at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging, right on time for the market that a growing black audience had suddenly opened for the black blues.
“Crazy Blues,” a record by Mamie Smith, had already alerted the white men who were making up the new recording industry as they went along that the “race” market was worth stooping to conquer. Smith was a vaudeville singer; and her accompanists were New York musicians already too sophisticated to be easy with the commanding chords and propulsive rhythms of the genuine blues. All the same, far from authenticity though it was, “Crazy Blues” was a huge success and demonstrated how eager black Americans were for a popular culture that sounded like their own. Dorsey saw blues singers “sweeping the country” and songwriters “popping up like pop corn.” In 1920 he copyrighted his first song, “If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving, You Can Count the Days I’m Gone.”
Several months later his uncle invited him to the National—that is, black—Baptist Convention. The convention was a trade show lively with commerce and entertainment. There, sitting in the back of a large auditorium, Thomas A. Dorsey was unexpectedly borne to Jesus by Rev. A. W. Nix, a singing evangelist who was performing a song called “I Do, Don’t You” to promote a new hymnal that black Baptists were offering for sale. Nix was using the rhythm-bending, melody-slurring, hard song-selling of Dorsey’s own secular trade to make congregants weary of decorum feel free to jump and shout. The force of revelation struck him like a falling tree:
My heart was [then] inspired to become a great singer and worker in the Kingdom of the Lord—and impress people just as this great singer did that Sunday morning.
Within a year he had written and registered several religious songs, and become director of music at a small migrant Baptist church. But before long he succumbed to the allure of forty dollars a week, and took a job with a band called the “Whispering Syncopators,” where he stayed until its other members threw him over for a better-known piano player.
In 1923, Columbia released Bessie Smith’s first record. “Downhearted Blues” sold three quarters of a million copies: by Harris’s estimate a fifth of all the “race” records purchased that year. The industry had until then considered Bessie Smith too country to sell; her record was a shocking demonstration of the raw appeal of southern music to black consumers. The feverish growth of the record industry was creating more demand for “product” to sell than the talent in New York could supply. Dorsey was in Chicago, the industry’s second city, and alert to his chance. He copyrighted seven songs: three of these were recorded—one, “Riverside Blues,” by the famous King Oliver—and another was sold to a major publishing house.
He began arranging music and coaching singers for a talent scout who “found” performers like Ma Rainey and sold them to record companies like Paramount, along with a repertory of Dorsey’s songs. Ma Rainey was the original show-business blues singer. Dorsey had seen her perform when he was a boy in Atlanta. Now she was plying her hard southern singing along the black theater circuit in cities upsouth and down. Rainey hired Dorsey to be her accompanist and to assemble, organize, and direct her “Wild Cats Jazz Band.”
Dorsey remembers the night he opened with Rainey at the Grand Theater in Chicago as the most exciting of his life:
The room is filled with a haze of smoke, she walks into the spotlight, face decorated with Stein’s Reddish Make-up Powder. She’s not a young symmetrical streamed-lined type; her face seems to have discarded no less than fifty some years. She stands out high in front with a glorious bust, squeezed tightly in the middle…She opens her mouth and starts singing:
It’s storming on the ocean, it’s storming on the sea,
My man left me this morning, and it’s storming down on me
When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle…She possessed her listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned…. A woman swooned who had lost her man. Men groaned who had given their week’s pay to some woman who…couldn’t be found at the appointed time. By this time she was just about at the end of her song…The bass drum rolled like thunders and the stage lights flickered like forked lightning:
I see the lightning flashing, I see the waves a dashing,
I got to spread the news…I got the stormy sea blues
Ma Rainey showed Dorsey that a theater could be like a church, and she taught him, too, that giving a good show was the business on any stage:
The curtain rose slowly and those soft lights played on the band…Ma was hidden in a big box-like affair built like a Victrola…A girl came out and put a big record on it. The band picked up “Moonshine Blues”; Ma sang a few bars inside the big Victrola, then she opened the door and stepped out into the spotlight with her glittering gown that weighed twenty pounds, wearing a necklace of $5, $10, and $20 gold pieces. The house went wild…Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand. Her diamonds flashed like sparks of fire falling from her fingers.
Dorsey stayed with Rainey two years, writing, arranging, directing, and playing all the music in her show. He traveled, made some money, met and married a young woman from home who lived at his uncle’s house. This interlude of relative prosperity was ended in 1926 by a wasting illness that nearly killed him and for two years eluded diagnosis. He was too debilitated to work. But one Sunday in his sister-in-law’s church, the minister addressed Dorsey directly, quietly admonished him to have more faith, told him he would not die with his work undone, then proceeded to pull “a live serpent” from Dorsey’s throat. Harris leaves Dorsey’s deadpan report of this event unexamined. For his part, Dorsey was impressed enough by the sudden and complete remittal of his suffering to “consecrate [himself] fully to God.” In what Harris calls his “second conversion,” Dorsey “took on new faith” that he would “attract the attention of the world and grow strong.” In the aftermath of this drama, Dorsey wrote “If You See My Savior (Tell Him That You Saw Me),” his first gospel blues:
…I began to write…not the blues and double-meaning songs that we played for the Saturday night parties, but songs of hope and faith…This was the turning point of my life.
But for Dorsey every turning had a twist. He printed up a thousand copies each of two of his titles and peddled them church to church, door to door. His efforts to sell these songs were unrewarded, and it taught him how important performance was in selling a song. From then on he would use live performers to present his inventory, bringing singers with him into churches to give recitals of his songs, and afterward selling sheet music to the audiences they entertained. By 1928, he was broke and going nowhere, so he took a job as staff arranger at Brunswick Records, one of six major companies in the black music business. Soon after, Dorsey recalled, a friend, Hudson Whitaker,
came to my home. He had some words written down and wanted me to write the music and arrange a melody to his words…I looked it over carefully and told him I do not do that kind of music anymore. I was now giving all of [my] time to gospel songs…After a long period of persuasion…I looked around at our poor furnishings and our limited wearing apparel. ‘Come on, once more won’t matter,’ he said quietly with a smile.
As Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, Whitaker and Dorsey recorded it the next day. The song was called “It’s Tight Like That” and it became the best known party record of its era. His partner’s talent for sexual double entendre—“Grandpa Joe got Grandma told / Said your jelly’s just a little too old”—gave Dorsey the unexpected gift of a recording career.
Dorsey made $3,000 from “It’s Tight Like That” but he lost it all when the bank he kept it in failed. His wife took this as a message: Dorsey could no longer trifle with promises made to God. “That is right, dear,” he says he replied, “and I shall from this day dedicate my life to gospel songs only.” But of the sixty records he made in the next four years, none was intended for religious audiences, since most had titles like “Pat That Bread,” “It’s All Wore out,” and “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing.” He says he was uneasy all the while over the imperilment of his soul, but in his music the sacred and profane were mingling indiscriminately. For a time he would give up writing one or the other, but never at any time repudiated either.
In the summer of 1930 at the National Baptist Convention of Black Churches, held again in Chicago, a young woman there from St. Louis sang “If You See My Savior” and upset the whole house; 15,000 delegates were “in the aisles…jumping,” singing and humming Dorsey’s tune. Since “the gig at that time was to grab what you could while you could, for if it went away you never saw it any more,” he hurried down to the convention hall, where he was ushered on to the floor in triumph. Dorsey was invited to set up a stall, and sold four thousand copies of his sheet music to the assembled Baptists, “and I been in the music business ever since.”
There he also met Theodore Frye, a singing preacher from Mississippi, in whom Dorsey saw an image of A. W. Nix, still his model of how he wanted his songs presented. Frye had a developed sense of church as theater, and an identifying stage technique—“strutting”—that Dorsey refined into a polished act:
We teamed up and traveled through the South, East, and Midwest making the national meetings and winning the acclaim of every audience…. They got to the place if Frye didn’t walk, they’d holler…”Walk, Frye, walk!” Then Frye’d start struttin’. He would walk and sing; I would stand up at the piano and pound the beat out… Frye would strut, women would fall out…Frye could get over anywhere with anything.
But Dorsey still hadn’t breached Chicago, the Vatican City of Afro-Christendom. That he would accomplish in the manner of an insurgency, guerrilla style, by training “gospel choruses” made up of immigrants from the South too unsophisticated to sing the European masterworks typically undertaken by choirs in Chicago’s established black churches. A gospel chorus was different from the senior choir, in which so many of the refinements of the conservatory and the ideals of the church establishment were evident. Choruses were relegated to performing in off hours, well away from the Sunday service. By 1932 Dorsey and his partner Frye had trained a succession of gospel choruses popular enough to force even the most resistant black high church ecclesiastics in Chicago to make practical business decisions; they either had to “get together one of them things [Dorsey] had” or lag behind in the competition for souls.
Dorsey applied what he had learned about the black recording and entertainment businesses in Chicago during the Twenties to selling sheet music in city churches which were beginning to bulge with newcomers from the country. During the Depression enough newcomers became congregants to exert their influence. Among them Dorsey found his market.
Yet as his affairs were brightening, Dorsey met the darkest crisis of his life. His wife and newborn son died within hours of each other. He was able to overcome his bitterness and despair only by an act of creation that was as unexpected as his misfortune. Frye persuaded him to leave the house one evening and they walked without particular purpose to a school in the neighborhood. There was a piano in one of the open rooms and Dorsey began “browsing over the keyboard,” “fumbling” with “an old tune.”
At this point, Harris exercises his license to practice musicology over nine pages of exposition to show how Dorsey transposed melodic elements of a nineteenth-century Anglo-Protestant hymn into his bluesy signature song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Dorsey’s own story is a variation of any songwriter’s who was ever asked how he wrote the tune that made him famous:
I called Mr. Frye. I said, “Come on Frye. Listen to this…I got this tune and I’m trying to put words with it…” I played [it] for [Frye]:…He said, “No man, no. Call Him ‘precious Lord’. Don’t call him ‘blessed Lord’; call him ‘precious Lord.’ ” And that…hit me…I said…”That’s it!”…And that hooked right in there. The words dropped like water…from the crevice of a rock.
“Precious” is a tender form of address meant for an intimate. It affirms its object as a being who comes with love rather than authority. When Dorsey and Frye introduced the song in church the next week, “the folk went wild. They went wild. They broke up the church…””Precious Lord” became Dorsey’s “White Christmas.” It paid him off for life, like an annuity, as though to compensate for the pain of its conception.
The momentum for Dorsey’s music now gathered without much impetus from him. Many of his associates were making their livings by training gospel choruses and selling Dorsey’s songs. They founded a local association to promote their work, grandly proclaimed it a National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, and appointed Dorsey its president, an honor he received with indifference and a function he at first ignored. Nevertheless by early 1933, Dorsey tells us, “gospel choirs…began to spread like wildfire and in twelve months almost every church throughout the country had…or wanted one.”
A woman he met at choir practice in the New Hope Baptist Church turned Dorsey’s songs into a thriving publishing business. “Sallie Martin can’t sing a lick,” Dorsey once said, “but she can get over anywhere.” She had a fiercely convincing stage presence that served her well enough in performance for forty years to overcome her undependability at carrying tune. She also brought Dorsey her skills at managing and organizing. She worked with Dorsey for nine years and when they parted in 1939 she left him with “a five-room studio with a private office, reception room, shipping department and five people on my payroll.”
Sallie Martin field-marshaled the gospel blues movement. From Chicago she set out to colonize new territories, sometimes with Dorsey, sometimes on her own, working her way across “highways and hedges,” training choirs, selling shows and sheet music. Martin and Dorsey’s other missionaries made Dorsey’s Convention of Gospel Choirs a training institute. Thanks to them, gospel blues became the black church’s mainstream music. Meanwhile, Dorsey had come upon the singer who would be its brightest star.
Dorsey spotted Mahalia Jackson in Chicago when she was seventeen, just arrived from New Orleans and working storefronts and small migrant churches. In those days Mahalia Jackson sang like an unbroken colt running loose over pasture. When she got in the spirit she hiked up her skirts and did the “holy dance” she learned as a child from the Sanctified Church next to her Baptist household. Mahalia caused enough scandal and shouting in Chicago’s better churches to get herself thrown out of nearly as many as Dorsey had when he started. But to the come-lately she seemed “a fresh wind from…down home.”
According to Dorsey she asked him to teach her his songs and become her coach. Dorsey saw what she had, but a decade in town had changed him from a backward newcomer into an old settler disdainful of backward newcomers. He thought of her as “one of those coon-shoutin’ singers.” Still, Dorsey schooled Jackson in all that Ma Rainey had taught him, just as he had Paramount’s blues singers, working on technique, repertoire, and stagecraft:
She had [talent] naturally. But you have a lot of things naturally [and] don’t know how to use it. [I wanted her] to get them trills and the turns and the moans and expressions…I wanted to train her how to do my numbers…with the beat—shake at the right time; shout at the right time.
He “taught her a number of slow, gentle, sentimental songs, so her full program would not be all of the fast, shouting types…” He tried to get her “to breathe correctly…to use her voice with ease…to smooth the roughness out of her singing…” But “she wouldn’t listen. She said I was trying to make a stereotyped singer out of her.”
Dorsey found for Mahalia Jackson the same employment he had for Theodore Frye and Sallie Martin, and she made it the platform from which her career was launched. They worked together for nearly ten years. Dorothy Love Coates, a gospel star of the next generation, recalled seeing them in Alabama:
Mr. Dorsey would just keep handing Mahalia these ballads, and she’d stand there reading the words while she sang. She’d do fifteen, twenty songs a night like that.
Dorsey and his disciples had mapped and paved the “gospel highway” for Jackson and truckloads of other traveling “church wreckers,” men and women capable every day of moving people to unconsciousness, sometimes even to death. Their stopping-off places were churches, high school auditoriums, Masonic halls, and civic arenas where the stars of this roadshow—less often the divas who occasionally got famous than the male singing groups who never did—worked the crowds they drew for the price of a ticket to get to the next stop. Like their audiences, gospel singers were the working poor. Those of highest rank could only aspire to owning a house and changing cars every year, unless they were one of a handful who entertained white people in nightclubs and concert halls. But if gospel music in its “golden age” hadn’t been a lively part of black show business, Sam Cooke could not have stepped out of it directly onto American Bandstand in 1956, and Mahalia Jackson never would have met Jules Schwerin.
Schwerin, a producer of documentary films, has written a book about her, a cross between a biography and a memoir of their relationship. Though it begins, “I found her in 1955…,” Schwerin mistook for a discovery something he simply hadn’t noticed was there. In 1947, when there were roughly three and a half million black households in the United States and her records were only for sale where white people rarely went, Mahalia’s recording of “Move On Up A Little Higher” sold a million copies. By 1955 Mahalia Jackson was about as well known among black Americans as, say, Dinah Washington or Nat “King” Cole.
By the time Studs Terkel introduced her to white audiences on radio in Chicago in the late Forties she had already turned a profit at gospel singing, the stoop labor of American show business. She had acquired along the way an unbending resolve in matters of money. She demanded every dollar due in cash before each of her performances, and stayed faithful to the lessons of scarcity’s classrooms by using her brassiere as a bank vault and her pocketbook as a checking account. Even after she was managed by the William Morris Agency, Jackson never was reconciled to being paid indirectly by means of a check from which ten percent had been extracted. Such an arrangement violated instincts sharpened by a lifetime of becoming the property of herself.
Though they acknowledged Mahalia as their queen, many of her old road partners were jealous of her ascension and resentful of how little they thought she’d done for them with the attention white people gave her. For her part, Mahalia resented being resented by “jealous-hearted singers” just because she knew so well, as Dorsey put it, how to “work her show.” “I just tell them I got out here on my own,” she said. Once Dorsey started her off, she had set her trajectory and flew it for herself. Her Carnegie Hall breakthrough in 1951 was self-promoted—“I worked my ass off”—and certified a triumph by Whitney Balliett, the jazz critic of The New Yorker.
Shortly afterward, when Columbia Records began to press its courtship of Jackson, John Hammond advised her that Columbia might make her rich but would surely break her heart. Hammond could well anticipate that once she took Columbia’s money it would compel a steady blanching of her art to make it more palatable to a general audience. Of course he was right; the company put her with Percy Faith’s orchestra, gave her spirituals and pop “inspirationals” to sing, set her against choirs, and even paired her with Harpo Marx. She once remarked that there was more “original” Mahalia in the one album she made before Columbia than in the whole of what she recorded while she was there. This was a price she was ready to pay for being sold under the imprint of the world’s largest merchandiser of sound and air, and broadcast so often into so many living rooms she became an ambassador to suburban America from its kitchen help.
Her implacable enterprise had lifted her out of penury in the early Thirties, when she parlayed her first mother-in-law’s hair and skin care preparations into a string of beauty parlors around Chicago; it was stirring still in the relative abundance of her later life when she became a partner in a fried-chicken franchise business bearing her name. At the end her affairs were sizable enough to support a small law firm, which she moved into her house, the better to manage her managers.
Schwerin makes it plain that whoever was around Mahalia for long got treated like an employee in domestic service. She fired husbands, lawyers, agents, and friends. John Sellers, a “godson and protege” whom she frequently abused, is the colorist of Schwerin’s portrait. He looks darkly on life with a woman he thinks ruined by the corruptions of money and too much attention from the wrong people. Alone near the end of her life in her eleven rooms, blistering her face with skin bleaches, she seemed to him a diva hardening into a gargoyle.
Schwerin became her consultant once Jackson began making regular television appearances in the Fifties. This was expected of him if he was to be tolerated in her company. Since she fought often with television directors who were inclined to present her in the Hollywood handkerchief-head tradition, she found uses for Schwerin as a technical adviser and go-between. Jackson was aimed by her handlers at middle-class, middle-aged white Americans whose country still echoed with the voices of its British settlers, and who equated primitive with childlike and thus had ascribed to the dark-skinned peoples they disparaged as primitive the same capacity for pure and simple faith they idealized in children. Americans who thought Negroes had a gift for spirituality were also used to thinking of that gift as the constructive expression of an otherwise disreputable propensity for emotional abandon.
So Mahalia’s album covers and publicity photos were images of beatitude. She was usually dressed in baptismal white and set against a woodland backdrop, her hands clasped before her expansive bosom, her eyes uplifted or closed as if in prayer or song, her countenance radiating serene conviction. Contrived as these stills were, they captured for display an aspect of her that was real. Mahalia was crafty enough on stage to calibrate the heat of her performance to the temperature of her audience; but she wasn’t a good enough actress to fake the quality of the belief that convinced her audience of its authenticity.
The audience Columbia brought Mahalia responded to what it thought it saw in her of the qualities the white middle class often sentimentalized in the household servant they cherished as “one of the family.” Two embodiments of the Hollywood maid—Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel—were Mahalia’s models for her career. Both began as singers of black popular music, as she then was, and both finished as movie actors, which for them was like starting as field hands and working their way inside the house.
The only employment movies had for the “World’s Greatest Gospel Singer” was Louise Beaver’s part in Imitation of Life when it was remade in 1958 for Lana Turner. Starchy as she was about compromising her dignity for a second-rate medium like television, Mahalia leapt upon the first chance she got to play a mammy on the big screen. Like John Hammond before him, Schwerin advised her against purchasing the world at the price of her soul. But more compelling than the $10,000 a week was the irresistible opportunity it gave her to certify herself as a star to the purveyors of low white culture. The warmest place for black performers was the spotlight in the shadow of Ed Sullivan’s smile.
Columbia Records and Imitation of Life propelled Mahalia on to the TV variety-show circuit in the late Fifties and early Sixties. This made her in a small way part of Middle-American domestic life. She was already a familiar face on television when talk shows were invented, at about the same time race troubles flared up in the South. With her occasional commentaries on daytime television about the social revolution unfolding on the evening news, Mahalia softened white audiences by bringing into their living rooms the moral and political perspectives of the black church.
By the middle of the century, when Mahalia’s star was hung, most African Americans were living in cities. Their migrations had made these places crucibles where the newly arrived rubbed against those already there; Dorsey was in the right place at the right time to effect one cycle in the changing shape of African American identity. By mid-century, the process was producing its second generation of “new Negroes.” The mainline urban black churches served this process well enough to preserve their institutional preeminence in black life. When the population shifted into cities, a new political base formed. The educated clergy there were already the resident leadership class, and so they became the biggest part of the black political establishment; this was what the missionary founders of the colleges they went to had intended for them. The purpose of their education had been to make them worthy of taking a place among Euro-Americans, and to equip them to help others do the same. As a class, they felt successful at this, and assumed that more than a limited citizenship should be available to them. This was their social purpose, and it followed that integration became the object of black participation in the American political process.
But many others who moved into cities found nothing changed but their places. As hopeful black migrants came often to be rejected, they huddled together in outcast churches, the “holy roller” denominations that were disreputable enough to have been called cults. It was they who preserved what was left of the religion of slaves. Gospel blues’ purest setting, they provided gospel music with its permanent audience.
The first of these to emerge, the black Holiness Church, started in Mississippi after the Civil War when Baptists who recoiled from their fellow Baptists because they spoke in tongues rebuked their rebukers for having too pale a faith. Theirs were differences not only of doctrine but also of style. Michael Harris describes the practices of Holiness congregations as being “as syncretic as the slave ‘invisible institution’ had been: a blend of African, Afro-American, and evangelical Christian rites and theology.” This church resisted a standard hymnal for most of its history; only the spontaneous was considered authentic:
Some people get happy, they run
Others speak in an unknown tongue
Some cry out in a spiritual trance
When I get happy, I do the holy dance
Mahalia Jackson would become an agent, a friend and patron to Martin Luther King, but her idol was a Holiness star of the Thirties. Elder Lucy Smith was charismatic enough to build a large church in Chicago with franchises in many other places, and theatrical enough to stipulate that when she died her body be drawn behind six white horses to the site of her grave. She was young Mahalia’s first idea of women doing good and doing well in a business men controlled. For twenty years in later life Mahalia collected money from people to build her own “temple.” She never built and never stopped preparing to build. It seemed she needed this dream, for it connected her to her earlier self, the girl from New Orleans who used to sing “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat From the Tares.”
The established and the outcast churches of black America had Mahalia Jackson in common. Like Dorsey, she was a supplier of services to the soul-saving industry. She was useful to the men of the black religious establishment; they made money together, and from half her lifetime on the road she knew them all. Becoming a Negro celebrity made her respectable. Television made her important. When television mixed with the politics of social change in the Sixties she made herself politically useful.
In Mahalia’s time the civil rights movement unfolded on television in serial snippets at the dinner hour. The nightly news was the national stage for repertory companies of real people performing every day. The campaign against racial segregation in the South made good television for ten years. It had arresting visuals, dramatic conflict, a simple uplifting story-line, a big climax, a happy ending. Southern Negroes were the heroes of this story. Many were men of the church and women, like Mahalia, who were its backbone.
She never was, as Jules Schwerin claims, “the most luminous name in black society,” but Mahalia did the work of her times. She was a “race man” of the old school. She made her money among white people, and she spent it, and the influence it gave her, in the cause of her tribe. When black church leaders in Chicago quailed at the threat of Richard M. Daley’s disapproval, Mahalia used her connections to broker Dr. King into the city to campaign for fair housing. This was no less a demonstration of the combined forces of her influence and will for having worked out badly.
The American public was compelled to notice the dignity and strength television made obvious in the comportment of Negroes who resisted malice with unyielding passivity. In a fairer world, James Bevel and other movement strategists would today be revered by modern political media consultants as industrial pioneers. Nonviolence eliminated any moral ambiguities that might have clouded their message. It was a strategy employed by people who understood that black heroes were easiest to recognize when they were also victims.
So clear and close was the association of the black church with the setting of this drama and its principal actors that its audience had to infer that what it found admirable in the characters it watched was attributable to the church itself. The black church never had greater visibility or a wider influence. This was, in a way, no less true of its music; even though gospel declined during these years, nearly everything characteristic of it was subsumed into “soul music,” which swept into the mainstream of America’s youth. “Soul” originally referred to a discrete style that was Southern and church-inflected, but became by the middle of the 1960s the brand name under which virtually all black popular music was sold. Gospel blues was now a term used by critics to describe the sound of singers with church music backgrounds who worked in the blues tradition.
All the years of media attention to the South made it easy for the southern Negro to be mistaken for the whole of his tribe. While for four decades African Americans had abandoned the South for cities north and west; the world seemed to have eyes only for those who had stayed behind. In 1965 some black Americans living in other places called attention to themselves by setting fire to their neighborhoods. This was the first of many dark twists this story would take on its way to cheating its audience of the happy ending it once seemed to promise.
In 1968 Mahalia sang “Precious Lord” over Martin Luther King’s dead body. His funeral was made to seem almost an occasion of state. Afterward, Mahalia’s voice, Dorsey’s words, and the image of a single tear track faintly glistening on the widow’s veiled cheek were compressed into the morsel of sound and pictures television showed again and again to represent an era’s dead illusions. The halo around the great historical triumph of black churchmen had dissipated into a wan afterglow; the church’s day was just that quickly past and gone. The three and half years between Dr. King’s death and her own was the time of Mahalia’s unpeaceable decline. For as long as it seemed she had been around, she was only sixty years old when she died of heart failure in January of 1972. Her death announcement appeared on the cover of black America’s national tabloid, Jet magazine. It read, “World’s Greatest Gospel Singer Dies Alone.”
Mahalia Jackson was a personage grand enough for two funerals. At the first, in Chicago, she was mourned by ten thousand people. The service was booked into the Aerie Crown Theater and befitted a dignitary. Many notables spoke. Mayor Daley, flanked by bodyguards, muttered condolences. Sammy Davis, Jr., brought Richard Nixon’s hope that “our country…press forward in achieving the true meaning of brotherhood to which she gave such…poignant…voice.” The big room was thick with gospel luminaries, though none were invited to sing. Only Dorsey and Sallie Martin were asked to represent Mahalia’s community of origin, and only with brief remarks. In The Gospel Sound* Anthony Heilbut reports that Dorsey, “as always, was equable and unruffled. He recited a brief poem, ‘just a piece of doggerel I composed this morning,’ and returned to his seat.”
The star of this occasion was Aretha Franklin, at the zenith then of her reign as “Queen of Soul.” Aretha’s biographers locate Mahalia as a frequent visitor to the Franklin household when Aretha was growing up. She was there as a kind of surrogate for Aretha’s mother, who was banished when her children were young. Mahalia was her mother’s friend but Aretha was her father’s child.
The Reverend C.L. Franklin was a celebrity preacher in Detroit whose recorded sermons sold millions. Aretha took her earliest inspiration and every bit of her early style from Clara Ward, who was her father’s friend and Mahalia’s rival. Aretha’s first recordings were of church music. Her father set her out on the gospel highway when she was still a girl. She worked that road until Sam Cooke’s example shone so bright in her father’s eyes that he sent her to New York to make her way in show business. She was nineteen then, and alone. She left two children behind in Detroit, souvenirs of company she had kept in her travels.
The gospel world Mahalia knew was unforgiving of any of its own who left and succeeded with what they took along. Among what was left of that world to gather that day in Chicago were members of the last of its generations to uphold distinctions that no longer mattered anywhere else:
[The service] ended with Aretha Franklin, simply dressed and beautiful, singing “Precious Lord.” …When Aretha’s name was announced, people began applauding, not a customary funeral response. Sallie Martin was beside herself, “Worst thing I ever heard…a night-club singer at a gospel singer’s funeral.”
But those distinctions had never mattered much to the man who had brought the nightclub style into gospel singing:
The long dry service had only exhausted Thomas A. Dorsey. While Sallie Martin was grumbling and Aretha Franklin was killing them loudly with his song, the old man nodded and snored.
If Aretha Franklin had been there on that day to do her act and not perform a painful duty, she would have sung “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which in her version had lately been the most popular record in black America. The song originated with Simon and Garfunkel and still is an anthem of the generation of Americans who now are middle-aged. In 1957, Paul Simon sat as a boy in his bedroom in Queens and heard on his radio the great Claude Jeter, lead singer of the Swan Silvertones, throw away a line that years later would turn into one of modern pop music’s best-remembered lyrics. Simon refined Jeter’s “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in My name,” into “like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.” It would be hard to say he improved on his source. That would be hard to say even of Aretha Franklin, who got rich and famous singing gospel music without references to God. She was one reason the world Dorsey and Mahalia knew had come to an end and she was as much a reason that some of it survives still.
Twenty-one years after Mahalia’s death, a man whose youth was touched by Aretha Franklin’s voice became president of the United States. Two days before his inauguration, Bill Clinton’s rounds brought him to Howard University for an appearance at a program celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday. Pictures on the news that night framed Clinton’s face behind the blue-satined torso of a young woman singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” She sang it stiffly, in the old-fashioned Tuskegee Institute Choir style, as though it were not the grittiest of Christian blues but belonged instead to the tradition of composed Negro spirituals that is our official idea of African American religious music, mannerly enough to be presentable. A song of the soil, “Precious Lord” was run through a wash, rinse, and spin cycle until all the shout was out. While Clinton was listening to the gentled echo of Dorsey’s cry, the old man was somewhere alive but already lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. All over black America children of the generation who were the last beneficiaries of the black church’s social influence were living in places where “getting paid” became religion, and television its church.
Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad News, revised edition (Limelight Editions, 1985). ↩