Book review

Mark Burford – ‘Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field’

Mark Burford – Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field
(Oxford University Press, 496pp., £22.99. Book review by Chris Parker)

Although this is the fourth published study of “the world’s greatest gospel singer” Mahalia Jackson, it is the first to address, thoroughly and objectively, the singer in the context delineated by the (carefully chosen) words after the “and” in its title. Mark Burford, unlike Jackson’s previous biographers, is an academic (Associate Professor of Music at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he is chair of the American Studies programme), so he is able to paint a portrait not only of the singer herself, but also of her position in post-WW2 American society. As he himself puts it: “Jackson was expected to represent black gospel music at its best and most genuine, though there was an implicit expectation that she would in fact represent on many levels: African American cultural history, the United States’ Judeo-Christian heritage, black respectability politics, the American Dream”. Accordingly, in addition to the familiar received truths about Jackson’s life – the “rags to riches” story of a poor New Orleanian from a shotgun shack becoming a national figure and singing at Carnegie Hall despite never learning to read music or compromising her Christian faith – Burford’s meticulously constructed study also investigates the “Black”, the “Gospel” and the “field” elements of its title.

Indeed, there is little new here, in the way of strict biographical detail, about Jackson’s life. Her childhood in New Orleans, her mother’s death and her upbringing by a strict but fundamentally kindly aunt, her migration to Chicago, immersion in the gospel scene there, her intriguing relationship with Apollo record-label boss Bess Berman (a figure worthy of a biography in her own right), and eventual worldwide fame, are all carefully described, and the resulting picture – of a down-to-earth, deeply Christian woman with a strong sense of the obligation she owes to both her faith and her community – is as familiar as it is vivid. Where Burford scores, though, is in his sensitivity to nuance, his ability to dig beneath the surface of well-known fact to unearth the contradictions beneath.

For instance, as is frequently found in the history of the blues (and in some present-day reactions to rap), there is no easy unanimity discernible in contemporary African American reaction to Jackson’s style of gospel singing, which was described by one conservative Reverend as “whooping and jazz swinging” that “swooped down upon the [Atlanta Baptist World Alliance] convention like Hitler’s blitzkrieg”. All her life, Burford suggests, Jackson was forced to navigate a path between what he calls the “cultivated” and the “vernacular” in the production of gospel music, risking offending the adherents of the former camp each time she veered too close to secular blues influences (Bessie Smith chief among them) and adherents of the latter camp by refusing to stray too far from the strictly spiritual core of her repertoire. Torn between her utterly sincere, deeply held Christian faith and her desire to have her message heard by as wide a constituency as possible, Jackson constantly resisted the efforts of the likes of Mitch Miller (her producer at Columbia in the 1950s after she left Apollo) to make her cast her stylistic net more widely.

Another fascinating contradiction is thrown up by Jackson’s lifelong passionate commitment to social justice, which by attracting left-leaning figures (such as Studs Terkel) to her camp, made those who wished to promote her as a figurehead in America’s Cold War struggle against godless Communism extremely nervous. At the peak of her fame, too (she appears on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, and on national radio and TV), she divides opinion by appearing to some as a “Beulah” (a stereotypical maid figure à la Hattie McDaniel) and to others as a fine upstanding Christian woman, a credit to her community.

As the author himself points out: “Jackson was called upon to represent variably and her work situated her at multiple intersections: evangelical singing and pop-cultural celebrity, black vernacular folkways and highly formalized denominational institutions, the black experience and U.S. propaganda, spiritual calling and socioeconomic desires.” By scrupulously examining such ambiguities and contradictions in all their subtlety, Burford has produced a thoroughly absorbing work illuminating not only the life and turbulent times of a great artist, but also the inner workings of a still neglected art form, gospel music.

Since publication, Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field has won three awards:

The Woody Guthrie Award for the most outstanding book on popular music from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music
– The Award for Excellence for the Best Historical Research from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections
– The Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society.

It is now available in paperback

LINK: Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field at Oxford University Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s