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  • Traveling with Mahalia:The Notebooks of Bill Russell

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Mahalia Jackson, publicity photo, ca. 1954, the Historic New Orleans Collection

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Sailing across the Atlantic aboard the United States for her second concert tour of Europe, Mahalia Jackson kept mostly to her stateroom. She was worn out from years of one-night-stand concerts. The ship’s doctor put her on a prizefighter diet of steak, spinach, and wine and assured her that a boat trip across the Atlantic would give her plenty of time to rest and build up her strength. He was right. Mahalia lazed on deck, taking in the empty horizon and listening to waves breaking against the ship’s prow. When she disembarked, she felt peaceful and soothed. Her first performance was in London at the Royal Albert Hall, where she had headlined nine years before to an underwhelming reception. She’d felt defeated by the Brits’ reserve and the regal hall that to her appeared to have been built before the time of Jesus.

But here she was again, assuming her flat-footed stance before a sold-out crowd, her longtime accompanist Mildred Falls at the piano beside her, rippling and rolling out the chords. She shut her eyes. As she began to sway to the music, her nerves eased, and she found her way slowly and reverently into “My Home over There,” her contralto voice filling the great hall. She sang for an hour, plus encores. The atmosphere resembled a religious revival; the audience didn’t sit on their hands this time but clapped along. Afterward, at the stage door, the crowd surged over her, knocking her down and forcing her to crawl to her limo. Similar scenes were repeated at venues throughout Europe. She was nothing short of a sensation.

It was 1961, and suddenly the world was crazy for gospel music. Less than a decade before, few outside the black Baptist church circuit knew what to make of Mahalia and her style of religious song. If anyone could have anticipated the change in reception, it was her good friend and close confidant Bill Russell, who had admired her work for some time. He had no doubt that the rest of the world would eventually catch on.

Bill had been instrumental in introducing jazz and blues to a mainstream audience in the ’30s with his groundbreaking book Jazzmen, and when the two music lovers became friends in the mid-1950s he felt it was just a matter of time before gospel reached a broader audience. Mahalia was delivering an original style of gospel—emotional, informal, and improvisational—with a lot of what she called “bounce.” Preachers railed against it. They claimed she was bringing jazz into the church, and it wasn’t dignified. But a growing mainstream audience loved her music and wanted more. [End Page 130]

The popularity of Mahalia’s church singing didn’t happen overnight. As a black woman growing up before the Civil Rights Movement, she had to overcome the challenges of poverty and discrimination. Born in 1911, the third of six children, in a shotgun shack in New Orleans, she was just one generation removed from slavery. The family’s poverty required that at an early age she help out, collecting driftwood along the levee and lumps of coal from the rail tracks for cooking fuel. Her father, a Baptist preacher, loaded cotton bales on the wharves and ran a barbershop, while her mother, Charity Clark, a domestic and washerwoman, died when “Halie” was five. She lived with an aunt who believed in God and hard work and put Halie in charge of the household chores. Her formal education ended in the eighth grade.

Halie escaped the drudgery of her home life at Plymouth Rock Missionary Baptist Church, where by the age of ten she was already singing solos. She was raised on the music of New Orleans that poured out of the Storyville brothels, showboats, juke joints, and cafes, and at home she listened to her cousins’ records: Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith.

In 1927 she pinned $100 in her bra and headed north to Chicago, despite...


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