“She has a once in a millennium voice.” That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about Mahalia Jackson. She and Dr. King were close friends. They marched and sang at many rallies, but the March on Washington was different.
Over a quarter million people converged on the Lincoln memorial on August 28, 1963. It was a day of collective voices. Of peaceful protest, and powerful song. Amidst the roar of the crowd, the musical line-up included Joan Baez, Marian Anderson, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan, and the great Mahalia Jackson. They all witnessed Dr. King give his most famous speech. After he’d spoken for some time, Mahalia Jackson called out from behind—“Tell them about the dream.” He put down the notes he’d written, and he did.
Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911, in a shotgun shack in uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. She began her singing career at the local Mount Moriah Baptist Church. At sixteen years old she moved to Chicago, where she began to tour with the Johnson Gospel Singers. In 1927, she met “the Father of Gospel” Thomas A. Dorsey—he became her mentor, and they began a long career of touring together. Her big break really came in ’48, when she recorded “You Gotta Move on Up a Little Higher,” which flew off the shelves, selling 8 million copies. Singing in the one room chapel, the prison cell, at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, Mahalia Jackson soon became the voice of a changing nation.
Mahalia was powerhouse of the Civil Rights Movement. Dubbed “the most powerful black woman in America” she was a close friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They met in 1956, and solidified their friendship when she agreed to rally for the Montgomery bus boycott. She became his confidante, offering guidance, even singing for him on the phone when he had a particularly hard day. He asked her to perform at the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, where she sang a number of songs, including Dr. King’s personal favorite “How I Got Over.” When he was assassinated, she spoke and sang at his funeral. “I have hopes,” she said “that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country.”
In her New York Times obituary, published after her death of heart complications on January 27, 1972, Alden Whitman wrote of the peculiar nature of her music. Certainly they were devotional, but in non-theological way that manages to transcend the confines of any organized religion. In that sense, her songs are not strictly hymns, not just spirituals. But categorically, they were not jazz and, “despite the fact that she had what might have been the best blues voice since Bessie Smith,” they were not blues. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she is quoted, “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues you’ve got nothing to rest on.”