Tuesday, July 29, 2008

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE MAHALIA IN HEAVEN

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[*This Blog Bit is dedicated to BR’ER MARC, his wife JENNIFER, and their little baby, PARKER, whom I know God Loves very much.*]

As is so often the case in my many other interests as well, when it comes to music, I tend to go through phases: I’ll play one artist almost exclusively until I have thoroughly worn him, her or them out, and then I’ll move on to a different musician, but eventually I’ll come back again full circle in time. I once went on a Western movie kick that lasted over two years – I viewed almost nothing but Westerns until I had seen almost everything that was then available on VHS. This may sound a bit insane, but reflect on the notion that saturation really teaches well and drives home a subject, and consider that when you go to see the general practitioner, it might cost you about $15. but when you go to see a specialist, that gets doubled to $30. (that is if you happen to have medical insurance). What I’m saying is that lots of people know a little bit about a lot of things, but the person who knows a lot about one thing is usually more famous and more well-paid.

This trait of mine is even evident in my eating habits. You know how little kids often eat one thing on their plate entirely before moving on to the next item? Side dishes, of course, are meant to complement the entree and are intended to be enjoyed intermittently with it. Well, I never quite got the hang of that and I still tend to exhaust one dish before moving on. Oh sure, if you go to dinner with me you’ll see that I take a bite of the rice and then a forkful of the refried beans at first, just to give you the impression that I too am a real grownup person (I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I’m weird or anything), but watch closely and before long you’ll notice that I’ve moved on to the cheese enchiladas and consumed them fully before revisiting those side dishes. I still eat like a little kid. A psychologist might label this as obsessive-compulsive, but I prefer to think I have great “focus.” My slogan is: “I have such powerful focus that it’s almost a mental illness.”
[*Cough!-Cough!*]

[An aside: If you think this is bad, you should have seen my brother Napoleon eat when he was a kid! He ate the way he did everything else: like the Tasmanian Devil after gulping down a case and a half of Red Bull energy drinks! When Ma told him, “Wipe your face!” he did it literally - he’d pass the napkin over his entire face several times in a circular motion. You’d think that would pretty well cover it, wouldn’t you? Well, it still didn’t address the bits of corn, hot dog bun and mashed potatoes clinging to his hair! She should have told him, “Wipe your face and hair!”]

Anyway, my most recent musical phase has me playing MAHALIA JACKSON tunes over and over again (and over again – Man, do I have great focus!) Mahalia Jackson, if you don’t know, reigned as the very aptly nicknamed “Queen Of Gospel Music” in the 1950s and ‘60s. Will Friedwald tells us that into the ‘50s, Mahalia “was perceived as a rebellious upstart by the more conservative Black churches”, but now, so many prominent singers of the day in Popular, Jazz, Urban Contemporary, Rock and Country music utilize so many of the techniques employed by Mahalia, that she has stylistically influenced hundreds of artists (Aretha Franklin among them) and she is recognized by many as having been the world’s greatest Gospel singer. I’m not one to argue with that assessment. (And no, contrary to popular belief, Jackson Browne is not related to Mahalia Jackson.)

I discovered Mahalia Jackson’s music shortly after coming to Christ - or after He came and got me, I should say: While I was alone in an apartment in a somewhat run-down Los Angeles neighborhood on the afternoon of April 6th, 1994, Jesus - to my great surprise - Baptized me with The Holy Spirit, using my own tears for the water. (It’s a long and soggy story, so I’ll spare you the details.) Like most people when they first encounter the reality of Christ and their “Salvation”, I was on fire for quite awhile, and I began filling my mind and my surroundings with reminders of my new spiritual vision. Therefore, I sought out some of that old-time Gospel music that I already knew I liked. (I mean, heck, “Down By The Riverside” had always been my favorite song in Disneyland’s America Sings attraction. Henrietta Hen – or whatever her name was – really belted out that Gospel number, and The Frog Five – or whatever their name was – laid down the deepest, croakingest bass I’d ever heard!)

In a small Christian gift shop in Westwood Village, I bought my first Mahalia albums: two two-disc sets titled “Gospels, Spirituals, & Hymns” Volumes 1 and 2. I dug her immediately; this was exactly the sort of music I was seeking. But the first Mahalia recording that I absolutely flipped over was “ELIJAH ROCK” (it’s a lot like “Jingle Bell Rock” except it’s sung by a Black woman instead of a White man, it has nothing whatsoever to do with jingling bells or Christmas, it has an entirely different pace, rhythm, and instrumentation, and it sounds completely different from “Jingle Bell Rock.” Otherwise, it’s the same song.)

“ELIJAH ROCK” with its tremendously powerful piano vamp played throughout by Mildred Falls in her very unique style just floored me. God, was Mildred great! Listen to what she does on Mahalia’s “I’M GOING TO LIVE THE LIFE I SING ABOUT IN MY SONG.” (And no, I wasn’t using God’s Name in vain just now: I was REALLY celebrating the gift He gave her.) Back in ’94, I would listen to “ELIJAH ROCK” through headphones cranked up to “eleven” (yeah, my headphones went up to eleven!) and I’d just groove along!

“Satan is a liar and a conjurer too; If you don’t mind out, he’ll conjure you! … You can call my Rock in the morning; call Him late at night; He’s always with me and all my battles He fights. When I’m in trouble, I can call Him on the line; He put a telephone in my heart and I can call God anytime!”

Man, that’s great stuffs!

I used to think about how much fun it would be to own a radio station and to dictate the playlist. I told myself that the first song my station (KSTM) would spin to inaugurate our place in the airwaves would be Mahalia’s “ELIJAH ROCK” – Oh, but wouldn’t that send the message that THIS radio station was going to do things its own way! (How wonderful would it be to have a radio station that might play Mahalia Jackson, followed by The Beach Boys, followed by Howlin’ Wolf, followed by Waylon Jennings, then Louis Prima, Tom Petty, Astrud Gilberto, and the theme from the Pink Panther movies, with a few early Bill Cosby skits thrown in every once in awhile just for laughs? Maybe we’d even spin a few Benny Hill songs if we can slip ‘em past the F.C.C. Don’t tell me KSTM wouldn’t be programmed into your radio’s preset buttons! Heck, we might even do an occasional Dr. Seuss reading.)

Another Mahalia song that burrowed deep into my heart in those early days was “KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW.” This fast-paced exhortation to keep on keepin’ on even through the dark nights of the soul often strengthened me during some of the tougher times, and it served to admonish me when I sometimes slipped in my spiritual walk. I just love the way Mahalia sings “Heard the voice of Jesus say, Come unto Me, I am the way.”

Hold on! Hold on!
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
Heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me, I am the way.”
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
When my way get dark as night,
Know The Lord will be my light.
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
You can talk about me as much as you please;
The more you talk, I’m gonna stay on my knees.
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
When I get to Heaven, gonna sing and shout;
Be nobody there to put me out.
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
Know my robe gonna fit me well;
Tried it on at the gates of hell.
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
Hold on! Hold on!
Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!

Hokie-Smokes! Listen to the way Bunny Shawker slaps them drums around at the end. That’s one funky bunny! If this song doesn’t fill you with spiritual determination, nothing will.

Where does one begin when writing about Mahalia’s music? I have to make mention of the way she rhythmically warns us that “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout Heaven ain’t goin’ there” in “WALK OVER GOD’S HEAVEN.” (That’s a Biblical fact – you should look it up.) Check out the range and tones she displays in “A SATISFIED MIND.” And how about Mahalia’s unrestrained enthusiasm in “GREAT GETTIN’ UP MORNING”? Or the old-time Gospel arrangement of “WALK IN JERUSALEM” with The Frog Five (or whoever that is) laying down that grooving vocal bass line during the chorus. Love it, man, love it! And you gotta recognize Mahalia’s signature tune “I WILL MOVE ON UP A LITTLE HIGHER” as the great stuffs it surely is. Oh, sheesh! There are simply too many tremendous Mahalia songs and too much too say about them, but that’s what we would expect from the woman who, according to Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, “became the first and still greatest superstar of the music that has come to be known as Gospel.” Dr. Boyer also informs us that Mahalia sang “TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD” at Martin Luther King Junior’s funeral. And hers was a truly heartfelt rendition of “I FOUND THE ANSWER.”

I found the answer: I like to pray
With faith to guide me, I found my Way…
I was weak and weary, and I had gone astray
Walkin’ in the darkness, I could not find the Way
But then a Light came shining…
Keep your Bible with you; Read it every day
Always count your blessings; always stop and pray.

In “SEARCH ME, LORD” Mahalia sang: “While I’m singing, I’m holy.” Amen, Sister. You surely were!

On an internet discussion board related to female Jazz vocalists, a woman asked me on October 3, 2006, “Do you have a favorite Mahalia number?” And I replied: Yes, I most certainly do. It's “HOW I GOT OVER.”

In my opinion, “HOW I GOT OVER” is the very pinnacle of Mahalia’s art and probably the most remarkable vocal performance ever recorded! As I listen carefully to the way that piece builds in intensity until it reaches that emotional peak, and the sporadic handclaps that seem almost involuntary to me, it strikes me that The Holy Spirit is animating Mahalia. Interestingly, she does not clap in time with the song, as if the Spirit inspiring her to clap follows Divine musical charts that we mere mortals are not privy to. And as the handclaps become more frequent and The Spirit moves her, it’s as though Mahalia the human being has mostly disappeared into the song and Mahalia is no longer singing the song but The Holy Spirit is singing Mahalia!

“You know, all night long, God kept His angels watching over me. And early this morning, early this morning, God told His angels, God said ‘Touch her in My Name.’ God said ‘Touch her in My Name.’ I rose this morning, I rose this morning. I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like SHOUTING!”

And when Mahalia sings “I feel like SHOUTING!” it almost makes my throat feel raw! And then comes that rousing conclusion, by which time Mahalia has all but disappeared in order to make room for The Holy Spirit:

“I just got to thank God, I just got to thank Him. Thank God for being soooOOOoooo goooOOOOOoood – God’s been good to me, yeah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

This is simply nothing less than the apex of Joy and Gratitude in song! [*Just typing this while hearing Mahalia only in my mind, I still get goose bumps.*]

I’ll level with you, even this rock-hearted, Old School “Old Testament Guy” has felt the eyes get watery more than once while listening intently to this extraordinary Mahalia performance. And on one occasion (circa 1996), while listening to “HOW I GOT OVER” on a Walkman, I felt The Holy Spirit moving so powerfully through me that – I kid you not! – I sincerely believe that I could have laid hands on any wheelchair-bound person in the world at that very moment and they would have walked away. It was one of the most startling spiritual experiences of my young...
[*Cough!-Cough!*]
...life!

Van Morrison is only one of many musical performers who have publicly cited Mahalia Jackson as being one of the major influences on them. In his great song “GIVE ME MY RAPTURE”, he sings “Let me sing all day and never get tired” – a line he undoubtedly first heard sung by Mahalia in “HOW I GOT OVER.”

My friend “The Great L.C.” owns 8,000 compact discs (and that doesn’t count his vinyl L.P. collection which is growing again weekly). But the man of 8,000 CDs, has one favorite musical performer in particular: Todd Rundgren. And of Rundgren’s many albums, The Great L.C.’s favorite is “Nearly Human” which concludes with a long Gospel flavored number titled “I LOVE MY LIFE.” At the very end of that song, if you listen closely, you can hear one woman from that rafter-shaking Gospel choir (which oddly includes Clarence Clemons of Springsteen’s E Street Band fame) yell out, “Gettin’ Over!” Obviously, her participation in this high-energy Gospel shout reminded her of Jackson’s version of “HOW I GOT OVER” and she was inspired to pay tribute to The Queen!

And heck, it’s not just musicians and bloggers who have been mesmerized by The Queen Of Gospel: BO KNOWS MAHALIA, too. (If you’re younger than about 30, that last sentence didn’t make a lick of sense to you.)

Back in 1995 and 1996, I used to attend Sunday services and group classes at a particular spiritual center here in Phoenix. That’s where I acquired the nickname “The Old Testament Guy” because I didn’t go in for all of that feel-good, New Age, namby-pamby, handholding rub-a-dub-dub. At one point, while a regular at this center, I made a cassette compilation tape of spiritual music that I especially enjoyed for a woman I had become friendly with in our Tuesday night Search For God study group. The tape included, of course, Mahalia’s “HOW I GOT OVER.” My friend later reported back to me that she enjoyed every tune on the tape “except for that one with the woman shouting.” What the--! My jaw fell open, the sky in my mind grew dark, “lightnings, thunderings and voices”, and fearing for her soul, I benevolently warned her that she’d better repent immediately and get right with God or I’d see her in hell! Uhm… well… that didn’t come out quite right… but you know what I mean.

Despite the fact that I’ve been listening to Mahalia Jackson for nearly a decade and a half, strangely, it wasn’t until this most recent OWDQ (Obsession Wid Da Queen) that I suddenly realized two of my most treasured Mahalia songs, “ELIJAH ROCK” and “HOW I GOT OVER”, were recorded live before the same Stockholm, Sweden audience on April 14, 1961. This presents two outrageously delicious possibilities to consider: 1) If these two tracks are any indication, this might well have been the greatest live performance ever given. 2) Since these two tracks exist, it’s quite possible (even quite likely) that the entire show was recorded. Perhaps then the tape of this full concert is lying forgotten in a Columbia Records music vault somewhere and is just waiting to be discovered and released to the world. What a mother lode of riches THAT find would be: the greatest live Gospel performance in history now available for the first time in its entirety! Color me “preordering!”

Meanwhile, I’m trying hard to be a “good boy” because I’d like to go to Heaven if for no other reason than to have the opportunity to hear Mahalia live and in person singing and never getting tired: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Cloud Nine Last Supper Club now proudly presents… Mahalia Jackson, Mildred Falls and The Frog Five!” [*Standing ovation on a dangerously shaking cumulus.*]

I think the coolest liner notes I’ve ever found in a music album were penned by researcher/writer David Ritz for the collection titled “MAHALIA JACKSON: 16 MOST REQUESTED SONGS.” Here’s some of what he has to say:

The evening still haunts my imagination. I still smell the humid summer breeze, still see the enormous Texas sky turning shocking pink. The sun sets in a theatrical blaze as I sit in this minor league baseball park across the river from downtown Dallas. It is 1959 and I’m 16, a recent transplant from New York, here to see Mahalia Jackson. I’m curious. The roadhouse Texas blues has challenged my singular view of jazz – especially the hard bop of Monk and Miles – as the world’s only worthwhile music. But I’m still somewhat skeptical. I’m not looking or a revival meeting; I’m simply hungry for emotional music that sticks to the ribs. I watch the crowd file in. Three or four thousand people are dressed in church-going outfits, the men in flashy suits, the women in technicolor dresses, many in fancy hats of felt and straw. In a city where segregation still rules, there is no separate seating tonight. Except for myself and a handful of others, the audience is black. What to expect?

She is wearing white. Her dress is a mass of cascading white ruffles and white lace; the high white hat upon her beehive hairdo looks like a crown. She has a regal bearing about her. She stands in the center of the infield in the very spot where the pitcher’s mound has been removed. Seated at a grand piano placed next to Mahalia is a woman whose name, I’d later learn, is Mildred Falls. “Been singing all over the world,” says Mahalia. “Been singing in fancy concert halls where even kings and queens have come to hear what all the shoutin’ is about. I like that, but I like this more. This is like being home, this is singing to the folks who knew me way back when.” The crowd loves the shared loyalty. They’re on their feet, waving and applauding wildly, even before she sings a note. When Mildred strikes the first chord, anticipation is high; I lean forward in my seat. When Mahalia opens her mouth to sing, there’s an explosion of spirit that has me tingling, when suddenly an ugly electric buzz breaks the mood and kills the sound. Mahalia is miffed. She strikes the microphone with the palm of her hand. Nothing. She strikes it again. Still no sound. I’m uneasy. Will the concert be cancelled?

For a moment, she stands there, hands on her ample hips. She shakes her head and then smiles, shouting for all to hear, “They had singin’ way before electricity. And they gonna have singin’ after all the electricity in the world blows itself up. And we gonna have singin’ tonight, oh yes we are!” And with that she throws down the microphone and the microphone stand to the ground. She claps her hands, Mildred strikes another mighty chord, and Mahalia raises her head to the open sky, her voice coming through with such thunderous determination and exquisite clarity that the excited crowd will not be seated, will not stop waving and cheering as she sings “How I Got Over” and “Come On Children, Let’s Sing” and “Gonna Live The Life I Sing About In My Song.” As the excitement builds, Mahalia lifts her long dress an inch or two above her ankles and does a happy dance, skipping like a little girl; she waves her hand back to the celebrants waving at her; she declares “We’re having church tonight!”; she rocks to Mildred’s rhythms, rocks the ball park so hard the old wooden seats seem to sing; on slow hymns she extends her notes so long the earth stops turning, the star-filled sky twinking in appreciation. There is no doubt – not in my mind or the minds of Mahalia or Mildred or the jubilant congregation – that the God who has created the miracle of music is moving through this ballpark. As the strength of her voice grows, the fire of her conviction spreads and burns, even when the performance has ended, even as I write these words some forty years later.

Mahalia is mythic. … Her technique is surely astonishing, but it is her emotional directness – her eagerness to give all she’s got, to infuse her song with so much of herself until every melody is somehow Mahaliaized – that insures her immortality. From her biographers, memoirists and own autobiography (“Moving On Up”), we sense her personality was as dynamic and unpredictable as her singing style. … She was a childless mother who adored children and her role as matriarch of the family of gospel music. She could be difficult and distant, salty and sweet, volatile, gracious, unreasonable and strongwilled. Author Jules Schewerin quotes her telling off a producer, “How come, mister, you think you can tell me about that old song, when it was born in my mouth?” …

The old songs in this collection are magnificent. The range of material and settings give us a good glimpse into the depth of her life-affirming artistry. Covering 1954 to 1967, five years before her passing, these are shining samples from the period when Mahalia reigned supreme. There’s a generous offering of the rock-steady yet sensitive accompaniment of the great Mildred Falls. I especially love how they interact on “How I Got Over,” how Mahalia gives thanks for “old time religion” and “for giving me vision”, how she carries on, barely able to contain the thrill of gratitude and the force of righteous syncopation. … There’s a consistency about Mahalia – she’s consistently surprising – that makes me love her more with every listening.

Years ago, I was listening to a famous interpreter of African American music. “For all its glory,” he said, “gospel music is basically sublimated sexuality.” The idea stuck with me – and also disturbed me. It took me decades to realize that the very opposite may be true, that rhythm-and-blues may be basically sublimated spirituality. Personally, I don’t believe Mahalia Jackson was sublimated anything. She turned the feeling of earthly blues into heavenly song. She flipped over the coin that once read despair and now reads hope. I read her literally. I believe her totally. I receive her in the same spirit that washed over me as a teenager in Dallas. I may have come to scoff, but I stayed to pray.”
-- David Ritz; Los Angeles, 1996.

If either of my Blog readers are interested in acquiring some prime Gospel music, they will do no better than The Queen Of Gospel herself, Mahalia Jackson. Along with The Queen, you’ll be getting the distinctive piano stylings of her friend and musical sidekick, Mildred Falls. Mahalia and Mildred: Sistahs got some serious soul! This ain’t that wimpy, whiny, feminized white bread crying crap that passes for Gospel music these days; this is the real stuffs: rip-yer-heart-out and hand-it-to-ya musical praise. If you dig The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Gospel recordings, then Mahalia might be too real, too raw, and too macho for you. If you think Bono, Mick, and Madonna really get on down with their bad selves, then you’d better stick with them skinny White folks soz you don’t get yer soul dislocated by The Queen. But if you ain’t a-skeered of real deep, muscular music that goes the full twelve rounds In The Name Of God and pulls no punches ‘til the final bell rings, then (whether you’re a he or a she) you just might have the stones for Mahalia.

Do I dig Mahalia? Hail “Yeah!” Does a bear bolero in the woods? … Does a fox foxtrot in the forest? … Does a piglet polka in a mud pit? Does a snake samba through the sage? Does a whale waltz in the water? Does a roe rumba on the range? Does a doe do-si-do in the— OH, ALRIGHT! Sheesh, I was only havin’ a little fun. Kill-joys! … Crummy kill-joys.

~ Stephen T. McCarthy
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4 comments:

mousiemarc said...

Very nice Mr. McCarthy. Thank you for the prayers for my son, and for the nice comment on your blog. The Doctor said (no joke), "Mr. Parker is not acting his age. He is eating and gaining weight, and we just don't see that in premature infants of his age." They expected him to stay 3 to 4 weeks. He's coming home Sunday and they said he probably could have come home sooner (meaning less than a week). The Doctor is entirely right; premature infants usually need feeding tubes and stay 3 to 4 weeks. However, through the combined prayer of you, your friends, Jennifer and my friends, and a loving heavenly father little Parker is astonishing the Docs. The Doctor also said, "He's gaining weight, premature infants of his age almost never do this. He's got a really vigerous appetite." He said that in a surprised tone... The God of our savior Jesus Christ worked in this situation and brought about this great deliverance. There are WAY TOO MANY things that could have gone wrong (including the birth which I'll tell you about in our next phone conversation) that someone could have put money on something going wrong if they only walked by their five senses. God heard our prayers, and mine were done with tears. I love to share these victories so you and your friends can share in Gods awesome love and kindness too. Success stories only encourage believers to throw themselves on the love, compassion and mercy seat of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. May someone read this fine post of yours, and maybe that with my little story of God's power just might encourage someone to open their bibles to Romans 10:9-10, John 3:16, and Acts 31:... I have faith that God can still use our faith in him to encourage others to get rescued themselves.

God Bless You Stephen, Your brother Marc loves you....

Marc

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

That is WONDERFUL news, Br'er Marc! Thanks for updating me. I have already said prayers of thanks and am inspired to say more.

><[The Doctor said (no joke), "Mr. Parker is not acting his age. He is eating and gaining weight, and we just don't see that in premature infants of his age."]><

Yeah, well I should think not! The Doc is already referring to him as "MISTER"?! Hokie-Smokes! That kid is growing just TOO FAST, Marc! You'll be calling your own Son "Pops" by this time next week.

Speaking of growing older, I turned 49 yesterday. 49! Holy Baloney! (Ever had Holy Baloney? Tastes like chicken.) Anyway, I'm a-skeered of the next one. Five-Oh? Me? 50?! Someone stop this thing and let me off! "I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys-R-Us Kid!"

~ STMcC
<"As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly."
~ Proverbs 26:11>

mousiemarc said...

All my good friends are born in August. You, my friend Heather, and my son. Happy Birthday friend, a little late.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

><[Happy Birthday friend, a little late.]><

No problem; I never advertise it beforehand. (Age out of thought is age out of sight. Come to think of it, "The Age Of Aquarius" was "Outta Sight" too.)

~ STMcC
<"As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly."
~ Proverbs 26:11>