Arts & Humanities

The Power of the Spirit

Prof. Mark Burford examines the tension between devotion and emotion in a new book on gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

By Gregory Weinstein | December 6, 2018

On September 12, 1947, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson went into a studio in Chicago and recorded four songs for Apollo Records, her second session for the label. Jackson was already a superstar in the world of gospel singing and a major figure in the National Baptist Convention, but she was not yet well known to the broader American listening public. All that was about to change, as her epic six-minute rendition of W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher” would make her a household name.

But mainstream popularity revealed tensions within gospel, as Prof. Mark Burford argues in his new biography, Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field. Black gospel was well situated to achieve mainstream success, both as an African American form at a time when so-called “race records” were booming and as a religious music during the early Cold War’s revival of American religiosity. But popularity also brought with it challenges of unscrupulous record industry figures who exploited black artists for their own gain, as well as questions about whether commercial success was compatible with authentic religious sentiment.

On the latter point, Burford notes that the black gospel “field” was always in dialog with the blues industry. Thomas Dorsey, one of the widely hailed originators of black gospel, had previously performed blues under the stage name “Georgia Tom,” while Jackson herself was sometimes criticized for singing in a style that was more blues-inflected than was appropriate for the sacred music she sang. (Gospel singer Georgia Peach contrasted her style with Jackson’s, explaining, “My inspiration comes strictly from the hymns…My inspiration comes from no blues.”)

While Burford clearly has great affection for Jackson’s music, he refuses to dismiss the religious critiques of her singing style. This is one of the great strengths of Burford’s argument: rather than try to resolve these historical tensions into a coherent linear narrative, he recognizes that the “field” of Black gospel was broad and varied. The eventual popular success of Jackson’s charismatic style was not preordained, but rather, was but one product of the complex web of social factors and positions in gospel and the broader musical cultures around it. The hit single “Move On Up a Little Higher,” her appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1952, her eventual move to Columbia Records, where Burford’s narrative ends—each of these historical moments contains more nuance and depth than has previously been understood, and Burford’s treatment of Jackson represents an important step forward.

Burford is exhaustive in his presentation and analysis of documentary evidence about Jackson, but the greatest value of his book lies in his powerful advocacy for the deep study of black music at a time when black identity is under attack from within and outside the academy. Burford points to the stream of thought in musicology (represented by musicologist Stephen Shearon) that would subsume the study of black gospel music into a much broader study of gospel singing throughout American history. Burford’s opposition highlights the implicit racism of such an argument: “Black gospel matters, some say? All gospel matters, Shearon seems to counter.” Thus, Burford’s core question in constructing his book demands deeper and more sensitive consideration from scholars and American society at large: “Under what conditions can black culture and black bodies be recognized?”

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