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Reviewed by:
  • Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field by Mark Burford
  • Jesse P. Karlsberg
Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field. By Mark Burford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. [xv, 472 p. ISBN 9780190634902 (hardcover), $67; ISBN 9780190095529 (paperback), $36.95; ISBN 9780190634926 (ebook), price varies.] Illustrations, tables, bibliography, index.

Mark Burford's excellent book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field is much more than a biography of Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) and the first book on the Black gospel luminary in twenty-five years. The book also draws on Jackson's life and work to characterize the dynamics of Black gospel in the postwar United States. In situating the progression of Jackson's career in gospel and popular contexts, Burford's analysis prompts a newly dynamic understanding of prestige in the field and its intersection with race, religion, gender, genre, and politics, opening up new possibilities for the study of gospel music and popular culture. Burford's treatment is also richly interdisciplinary, deploying sociological and critical theoretical frames, historical research methods, and music analysis.

On the singer herself, Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field is rich in biographical detail, drawing on an unprecedented array of archival sources. Burford charts Jackson's family history, the singer's youth in Louisiana, her move to Chicago, her navigation of institutions in Black Baptist and Chicago gospel circles as she rose to acclaim as the "Queen of Gospel Music," her recordings for the independent Apollo Records label, her dynamic live performances on Black gospel and mass cultural circuits, and the national fame that accompanied this and her CBS radio and television programs and work with Columbia Recording Corporation. Burford unearths new evidence on dates associated with key events in Jackson's early life—such as her birth in Louisiana and move to Chicago—and traces the implications of these findings on stories of her entwinement with the rise of gospel music in Chicago in the 1930s. Throughout, Burford represents Jackson and those in her orbit as agents in their own stories who engaged in nuanced self-reflection around questions of class, race, place, and religion, and who interrogated their own positions in the Black gospel field. Burford's biographical coverage extends beyond Jackson herself to include others in her circle. He paints vivid pictures of several "omnipresent and shadowy figure[s]" (p. 147) in Jackson's life, including (among a range of composers, record producers, ministers, and others) diarist and jack-of-all-trades Bill Russell, composer Thomas Dorsey, promoter Johnny Myers, record producer Bess Berman, and long-time accompanist Mildred Falls.

Burford pairs this biographical account with careful and attentive music analysis to develop helpful characterizations of postwar Black gospel styles in Jackson's music with broader applicability. Burford connects his own informed listening and viewing to historical and contemporaneous contexts within and beyond gospel, including genres such as pop, jazz, and light classical. Burford's adroit music analysis of Jackson's gospel performances represents an important and still radical example in the discipline of musicology, where such methods are still most commonly associated with Western art music. Burford offers a helpful disambiguation of Black gospel song types, enumerating four categories in discussing Jackson's Apollo recordings: religious popular music and three feels—"a 'swing' feel, a 'gospel' feel, and a 'free' feel reserved primarily for hymns," each "established by determinable factors that include tempo, metrical organization, rhythmic impulse, expressive strategies, vocal approach, and even repertory" (p. 174) [End Page 544] . Here and elsewhere in the book, Burford precisely and effectively describes Jackson's music making, conveying challenging musical concepts such as expressivity and feel, as in his description of a "sudden and dramatic but completely controlled eruption" that "rockets a major seventh upward . . . overshooting the blue third—and drifts melismatically back down to the lower tonic" (p. 337). Burford also demonstrates why these music-analytical characterizations matter, charting Jackson's "ambivalent" navigation of the "class politics of voice" (p. 385) through her performance style.

Burford's embrace of the theoretical concept of the "field," drawing on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, helps him connect Jackson's mobility and music making to Black gospel during the postwar...