Mahalia: A Life in Gospel Music

Mahalia: A Life in Gospel Music

by Roxane Orgill, Roxanne Orgill

Mahalia Jackson’s rise from a young choir soloist in New Orleans to America’s most famous gospel singer is a stirring story of social and musical history.

Born poor in New Orleans in 1911, young Mahalia Jackson was told to
"let it out" when she sang the gospel at church each Sunday. Swaying and clapping her hands, she astonished

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Mahalia Jackson’s rise from a young choir soloist in New Orleans to America’s most famous gospel singer is a stirring story of social and musical history.

Born poor in New Orleans in 1911, young Mahalia Jackson was told to
"let it out" when she sang the gospel at church each Sunday. Swaying and clapping her hands, she astonished everyone who heard her powerful voice. As her fame grew, her soulful voice helped introduce gospel music to the world and brought hope to thousands of civil rights workers who marched for equality in the 1960s. Through it all, Mahalia’s faith in God never wavered and her talent remained a shining light. Roxane Orgill’s compelling narrative, accompanied by more than fifty photographs, brings drama, depth, and immediacy to the life of the world’s most famous gospel singer.

Editorial Reviews

Orgill brings gospel singer Mahalia Jackson back to life in this biography, clearly evoking the singer's deep religious convictions. The turmoil Jackson underwent when offered a coveted role in The Hot Mikado, a musical with an all African American cast, was the result of her vow never to sing anything but God's word and never to sing in a theater. Her biography reads like a novel, drawing the reader in to her story. The author emphasizes that Jackson rose to superstardom at a time when it was not only difficult for women to succeed but nearly impossible for African American women. Growing up in the Deep South, she was raised by her Aunt Duke after her mother's death. Jackson began singing in her church choir at the age of four and was given solo parts because of her strong voice. Often referred to as Halia, she moved with her Aunt Hannah to Chicago where she met her first husband. Although this and her second marriage were short-lived, Jackson's fame grew, and while involved in the Civil Rights movement, she developed a strong friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta. Orgill's biography of this renowned singer seems incomplete. For example, there are hints that Jackson might have had a temper, but the author never expounds. Nevertheless the book will be useful for units on African American history or music in America and fulfills minimum page requirements. Photos. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8). 2002, Candlewick, 132p,
— Wendy Shivak
Children's Literature
"Goin' walk and never get tired. I'm goin' move up a little higher," sang Mahalia, and that's exactly what she did. From her birth into poverty in New Orleans in 1911, she moved north to Chicago and east and west out into the whole world. Without formal musical training but with the single desire to do "the Lord's business," Miss Jackson took her gospel songs wherever they could do good. Constantly on the road, she wore herself out in God's service and died at the relatively young age of 60. The author depends on dialogue to tell the songster's story. In the introduction she says, "I wanted the story to have music in it," and the ebb and flow of the conversational interchanges does become a kind of music. It seems to leap directly and inspirationally from the heart of Halie, as she was known, to the reader who feels drawn right into her extended family, sharing her favorite ham, greens and cornbread at the common table. This glossy biography should be part of every library's Black History Month collection, ready to be enticingly displayed. The numerous black-and-white photographs enliven the telling and place it in its historical setting. An absorbing and challenging read. 2002, Candlewick Press, $19.99. Ages 10 to 15. Reviewer: Earlene Viano
School Library Journal
Gr 5 Up-A readable, moving portrait of a passionately religious woman devoted to bringing the gospel to audiences around the world through her music. Jackson's remarkably strong impact on her listeners is related in anecdotes such as this one: people began knocking on church doors in New Orleans asking to be baptized just days after her recording of "God Shall Wipe Away All Tears" appeared on tavern jukeboxes in 1938. Rhythmic sentences, sometimes fragments, capture the beat of gospel music and incorporate vernacular African-American speech patterns from the 1920s to the early 1970s. Events in the singer's personal life and musical career are skillfully blended with material about the social climate of the times. Black-and-white photographs of Jackson; people and places in her life; and other aspects of African-American history such as storefront churches, segregated restrooms, and civil rights marches appear throughout the book. An excellent addition for those interested in biography, music, and African-American history.-Ginny Gustin, Sonoma County Library System, Santa Rosa, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

Candlewick Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
9.13(w) x 9.75(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

She was singing at a funeral when a man handed her his business card and said, "I want to put you on records. You had all those people crying." The card read: "J. Mayo Williams, Artists and Repertoire, Decca Records, Race Record Division."
Mahalia fingered and read and reread the business card all night and the next morning. Finally she gathered her courage and telephoned. How much does it cost to make a record, she wanted to know.
J. Mayo Williams, called "Ink," laughed. "Nothing. Just come on down."
Twenty-five-year-old Mahalia gathered her piano player, Estelle Allen, and four gospel songs. Curious, eager John Sellers tagged along. They went to the biggest building she had ever seen, the American Furniture Mart, ten times the size of anything on Canal Street in New Orleans. Mahalia was quiet as she presented gifts to Ink Williams: a bottle of whiskey and a box of cigars.
He was the musical director. He told her where to stand so the microphone could pick up the sound of both her voice and Estelle’s piano and organ. In another room, the engineer turned the knobs and pulled the switches. Mahalia had Estelle play piano on the two fast tunes, "God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares" and "You Sing On, My Singer." Mahalia wasn’t a bit nervous as she hollered, holding nothing back, " ‘If you never hear me sing no more, aw, meet me on the other shore.’ " For the slow numbers, "God Shall Wipe Away All Tears" and
"Keep Me Every Day," she put Estelle on organ. Afterward Mahalia, Estelle, and John went out to celebrate with barbecue at a favorite restaurant close to home, but Mahalia had enough money for only two plates of ribs and one bottle of soda pop, and she put some food aside to take home to Ike. When the waitress said to her, "Oh, Mahalia, you’re going to be a great singer!" she replied, "No, I don’t think so." She wasn’t pleased with her first recording. She thought she could do better.
When the record was released in 1938, buyers were few. Gospel music was still fairly new, and confined mostly to the churches. Only one singer, Rosetta Tharpe, had had a hit gospel record, "Rock Me," on which she sang and picked guitar like a bluesman. Rosetta wasn’t exactly God-fearing; she’d even sung with the big jazz bands in the dance halls. Mahalia stuck to church and was consequently little known outside of Chicago—unless you counted back home in Pinching Town.
In New Orleans the taverns put a religious record into their jukeboxes for the first time, because this record wasn’t by just anybody but by one of their own. The news traveled like fire: "Mahalie’s on the box!"
The whole family crowded into the Bumblebee Bar to listen. Aunt Bell had never been in a tavern before, but she dared to enter, along with Aunt Bessie, Cousin Celie, Cousin Allen, and all the other cousins—everyone except Aunt Duke, who was working. Even Johnny Jackson, Mahalia’s father, was there. The sound of "God Shall Wipe Away All Tears" boomed from the jukebox, slow and majestic. Everyone listened closely as Mahalia made each word a meditation: " ‘When we reach the blessed homeland . . . God shall wipe all tears away.’ "
"That’s my daughter!" cried Johnny Jackson.
Outside, the song blared from other taverns on other corners. Men were crying, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs. People ran in the streets, shouting, "My God, what a voice!"
In the days that followed, people knocked on church doors in New Orleans, asking to be baptized. Mahalia’s voice had that much power.

Mahalia. Copyright (c) 2002 Roxane Orgill. Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

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