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Mahalia Jackson: Voice Of The Civil Rights Movement

Mahalia Jackson sings at a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in May 1957.

When you hear the voice, you know the woman.

"That's where the power comes from," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who first met the singer in the 1960s. "When there is no gap between what you say and who you are, what you say and what you believe — when you can express that in song, it is all the more powerful."

Mahalia Jackson was born in 1911 in New Orleans. When she was 16, she traveled the well-worn path up the Mississippi River to Chicago.

Beginning in the 1940s, she was one of the first singers to take gospel out of the church, drawing white audiences and selling millions of records. She inspired generations of singers, including Aretha Franklin, Della Reese, Albertina Walker and Mavis Staples of The Staples Singers.

Still, Staples says, Mahalia Jackson's success didn't always go over well back home in the black church.

"The ministers in the churches didn't want her singing in their church, because she would put a beat behind these traditional gospel songs," Staples says. "They would say, 'She's singing the blues.' "

Causing Trouble

And when Jackson brought her brand of gospel to the recording studio, it could cause trouble, as well, says the Rev. Stanley Keeble of Chicago's Gospel Music Heritage Museum.

For example, she worked with the great Mitch Miller.

"Mahalia had him pulling out his hair at the recording session," Keeble says. "Mahalia had a problem staying within those time measures that he had set. And gospel music is more inspirational than time-induced."

In her determination to keep her music reflective of her faith and personal vision, Mahalia Jackson could stand up to producers, preachers and even friends. Louis Armstrong was one of many who begged her to try jazz or pop, but she steadfastly insisted on singing only gospel.

Her voice became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Jesse Jackson says that, when a young Martin Luther King Jr. called on her, she never refused, traveling with him to the deepest parts of the segregated south. Mahalia Jackson sang at Selma, the March on Washington and King's funeral.

"She put her career and faith on the line, and both of them prevailed," Jesse Jackson says. "And, of course, when she got through with the big meetings, she could cook as good as she could sing."

When food is cooked with love and soul, you can taste it. Her friends say that what made Mahalia Jackson a great singer is what made her a great cook: Her heart and her home were always open, especially to the young. Mavis Staples says you can feel her love and faith after all these years.

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Transcript

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble of the World")

Ms.�MAHALIA JACKSON (Gospel Singer): (Singing) Soon it will be done. Trouble of the world. Trouble of the world. Trouble of the world.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In our year-long series 50 Great Voices, NPR asks the question: What makes a voice great? We turn now to this voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble of the World")

Ms.�JACKSON: (Singing) Trouble of the world. Going home to live with God.

BLOCK: It belongs to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. If the Civil Rights Movement had a soundtrack, you would no doubt find Jackson's name and voice again and again. She sang at Selma, at the march on Washington and at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. And what's drawn so many to Mahalia Jackson's voice then and now is its authenticity.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON: When you hear the voice, you know the woman.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Baptist Minister): And that's where the power comes.

GLINTON: Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Rev. JACKSON: When there is no gap between what you say and who you are, what you say and what you believe, and when you can express that through song, it is all the more powerful.

(Soundbite of song, "Move on Up a Little Higher")

Ms.�JACKSON: (Singing) Move on up a little higher, Lord. Meet with Old Man Daniel. Move on up a little higher, Lord. Meet with The Hebrew Children. Move on up a little higher, Lord. Meet with Paul and Silas. Move on up a little higher, Lord. Meet my Loving Mother.

GLINTON: Beginning in the 1940s, Mahalia Jackson was one of the first singers to take gospel out of the church, drawing white audiences and selling millions of records. She inspired generations of singers like Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, you know...

GLINTON: (Singing) I'll take you there.

GLINTON: ...of The Staples Singers? Mavis Staples says Mahalia Jackson's success didn't always go over well back home in the black church.

Ms. MAVIS STAPLES (Singer): The ministers in the churches here didn't want her singing in their church because she would put a beat to these traditional gospel songs. She would you know, they would say she's singing the blues. Just like "How I Got Over." You see, the church would sing:

Ms.�STAPLES: (Singing) How I got over, how I got over my Lord.

Ms.�STAPLES: And Sister Mahalia Jackson would say:

Ms.�STAPLES: (Singing) How I got over, how I got over, you know my soul looked back and wondered how did I made it over.

(Soundbite of song, "How I Got Over")

Ms.�JACKSON: (Singing) Tell me how I got over. I've been falling and rising all these years. But you know my soul look back and wonder, how did I make it over.

GLINTON: And when Jackson brought her brand of gospel to the recording studio, it could cause trouble. Music historian Reverend Stanley Keeble tells a story of when she worked with the great producer Mitch Miller.

Reverend STANLEY KEEBLE (Gospel Music Heritage Museum): Mahalia had him pulling out his hair at the recording session because Mahalia had a problem staying within those time measures that he had set, and gospel music is more inspirational than time-induced.

GLINTON: You sing as the spirit hits you.

Rev. KEEBLE: Definitely.

GLINTON: Jackson could stand up to producers, preachers and even friends like Louis Armstrong, who begged her to try jazz or pop when she insisted only on singing gospel.

(Soundbite of song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord")

Ms.�JACKSON: (Singing) Through the night, take my hand, precious Lord and lead me home.

GLINTON: Jesse Jackson says when a young Martin Luther King Jr. called on her during the Civil Rights Movement, she never refused, traveling with him to the deepest parts of the segregated South.

Rev. JACKSON: And so she put her career and her faith on the line, and both of them prevailed, and, of course, when we get through with the big meetings, she could cook as good as she could sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GLINTON: You know when food is cooked with love and soul, you can kind of taste it? Mavis Staples says you can so clearly feel the love and faith in Sister Mahalia Jackson's music that listening to this story might cause some distracted driving.

Ms.�STAPLES: Oh, it might make them stop driving. It might make them pull over to the curb and listen when, if the song is finished, I guarantee you they will take a deep sigh.

GLINTON: Let's see if she's right.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "How I Got Over")

Ms.�JACKSON: (Singing) And I'll join the heavenly choir and then I'm gonna shout and never get tired. And then I'm gonna shout somewhere 'round the altar. And then I'm gonna sing Gloria, Hallelujah. You now have got to thank God. Thank you for being so goddamn good to me.

(Soundbite of applause)

MICHELE NORRIS:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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