Anyone who’s heard her sing can tell you: Mahalia Jackson had “one of those voices.” It was one of those voices that renders your own silent–it’s expressive power so palpable, you can’t help but silently listen. But beyond the enraptured moments of ineffability, what exactly is it about Jackson’s voice that commands such reverence? We could take two equally viable routes to try and explain. The first takes us on a tour of Jackson’s life not merely as a professional singer, as a proprietor of a branded “voice,” but as a human being living in a particular place and time, a place whose sensibility permeates that voice – in this case, the South Side of Chicago. The second route leads us to examine Jackson’s voice via musical analysis, mapping out the vivid landscape of her aesthetic as we go along.
As historian Adam Green vividly shows in his 2007 book Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955, to the black South Side, Mahalia was quite a bit more than the venerated Queen of Gospel. She was also a savvy businesswoman, a determined self-promoter, and a devoted communitarian. When not in the limelight of the stage, she could often be seen lugging boxes of her own records through the midday South Side sun to add to the stock of a local record shop, smelling the merchandise at her self-owned flower shop, chatting with the hairdressers from her own salon, or contributing entertainment at a local politician’s outdoor fundraiser. Jackson didn’t just perform for the South Side community. She participated in and contributed to it. Likewise, the city gave back to her generously, ultimately serving as the springboard for her wider success.
Traveling down the second route, we witness the contours of Jackson’s aesthetic sensibility. One of the most important aspects of Jackson’s singing style was its quotidian sensibility, not only in terms of its placement in the gospel tradition, but also in terms of aesthetic accessibility. As her seminal 1947 recording “Move on Up a Little Higher” exemplifies (link below), Jackson’s singing was not propelled forward by virtuosic display, but rather through concise melodic phrases in which every note was invested with a sense of power. Her range in “Move on Up” remains largely limited to an octave, but this only makes her intermittent movements a step above the octave mark that much more effective. Ultimately, Jackson was a master of the blues aesthetic. She used a broad vocabulary of blue notes, diphthong shapings, riffs, and call-and-response repetitions, as she squeezed every drop of expressivity from each word and note. Aesthetically, Jackson’s voice moves the listener through emotional assertion, not show stopping melismas.
As you can see, both of these routes lead to a common destination. Jackson’s deeply cultivated involvement with Chicago’s South Side community during the 1940s and 50s provided the conditions for her success, thus preparing the grounds for our own present appreciation of the power of her voice. Her place in Chicago had to do in large part with self-determination and the ability to carve out a space for her voice. Jackson gained iconic status not only through sheer artistic prowess but also through hard work and engagement with multiple social scenes. Mahalia Jackson’s voice resonates not through virtuosity, but through a deeply quotidian character rooted in a sense of community. It stands not as an icon of unattainable height but rather one of the very possibilities of attaining those heights oneself. Mahalia certainly had “one of those voices,” but it was one for all.–JS
Mahalia: Moving Something Up for the People