Published on July 2nd, 2019 | by Nina Pulley
4 Inspiring Women Who Were Gospel’s First Sounds
Mahalia Jackson is often hailed as the greatest gospel singer of our time, or variations on that theme. Sometimes she is called the “Mother” or “Queen” of gospel as we know it, other times the voice of a generation, or one of the greatest singers of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, no one goes as far as she did alone, and the principle of community has always been central to the mission and life of African-American people. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that a little research yields a plethora of talented singers that accompanied the great Jackson throughout her life and career.
Singing with Mahalia was a group of highly talented gospel music vocalists that hailed from the American South, a number of them moving to Chicago during the Great Migration which occurred roughly between the years 1916 and 1970 which preserved the heart of the experience of postbellum, post-enslavement life in the South. As the Black bourgeois elevated to new heights in the city, most of the singers remained close to their roots, most likely staying true to the values of home, hearth, and spiritual gain.
The singers – Myrtle Jackson, Myrtle Scott, Bessie Folk, and Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner – are just a few of the many Black women who formed the bedrock upon which gospel music has been built. They’re mothers, sisters, and mentors to the many great vocalists we know today: Whitney Houston, the Clarke Sisters, and the Sheard family, for example, who learned from these women and their contemporaries.
Each of the four women achieved much in the few years that we each have on this planet. Not only did they enjoy success and recognition in the gospel music community, but they spent time fostering the talents of the young vocalists, ethnomusicologists and accompanists that followed them. An excerpt from the book by gospel music historian Robert Marovich’s “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music” lays the groundwork for understanding just who these artists were:
The tight-knit group that gathered at Mahalia’s Beauty Shop was an informal mélange of gospel artists with a shared commitment to sacred singing who formed a subset of the southern migrant population that had separated itself from the city’s black bourgeois. The members of this community not only sustained gospel music in its embryonic days but became its first national stars.1
Accompanying the article is a short playlist of their works, to enrich and lighten your day. Whether or not you’re a gospel fiend, you’ll find the music they created a wellspring of inspiration, hope, and a record of just one of the aspects of the rich Black experience.
Myrtle Jackson: “The Singing Lady from the South”
A beauty shop at 3252 South Indiana, Chicago, Illinois during a 1946 summer was filled with harmonies welling up from the back of the sun-warmed store. Women from the local church up the street met informally at this shop to get their hair done, fellowship together, and bring their voices together in song. One of those voices belonged to Myrtle Jackson, who would go on to record extensively with the famous Roberta Martin Singers, record a solo album and be featured on television. Just half a block up from their local gathering – the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church – the community beauty store owned by none other than Mahalia Jackson while in her mid-twenties was bustling with creative energy and a love of the gospel. This was where Myrtle and other women honed their singing abilities together with an emphasis on the strength found in community.
At another church not too far away, the First Church of Deliverance, a “fertile field of gospel talent” rose up as notable singers in the 40s and 50s, as recorded by Marovich.2 It has been documented that Myrtle and the other women who gathered there would travel from church to church singing at different events put on by the churches’ musical and administrative staff. Often all working as one, the collective of women eventually got onto the circuit for the National Baptist Convention, the largest gathering of African-American people at the time.
Beyond being just one singer of the emergent group of powerful vocalists that gathered in Mahalia Jackson’s establishment, she also sang in the Roberta Martin Singers group, an African-American gospel group based in the United States, active between the years 1933 and 1970. Roberta Martin, the group’s founder, was a luminant composer, singer, pianist, arranger and choral organizer, and helped launch the careers of several singers including Robert Anderson, Willie Webb, Myrtle and Celeste Scott, and others.
Jackson recorded twenty sides for Brunswick/Coral between 1949 and 1953, and in 1963 released an album on Savoy Records. She also wrote popular gospel songs such as “But This I Pray, Oh Lord, Remember Me” and “Christ My Hope,” delivering them with control and intention. Later in Marovich’s book there is a short account of Chicago gospel singer Aldrea Sanford Lenox remarking that, “You had to have that smooth, mellow, good sounding voice. Myrtle’s voice was a phenomenon.”3
The late singer’s singular album can be found on Spotify entitled, “Myrtle Jackson Sings Songs of Hope and Inspiration,” recorded in 1963, and the associated account has less than ten followers, although that can change.
Myrtle Scott: Little-Recorded but Widely Admired
Myrtle Scott was also a member of the “fellowship hot spot” of singers who grew up in the church singing spirituals in Chicago before being catapulted into national success.4 Scott was, like her contemporary Myrtle Jackson, a member of the Roberta Martin Singers and a soulful, commanding singer, often touted as the city’s best. She didn’t record much as a soloist, with most of her recorded work being the gospel choir songs and collections upon which many of the other women sang. She didn’t record as many singles as a soloist as Myrtle Jackson or Sallie Martin. In most of her performances, Scott improvised with tonality, pronunciation, African-American Vernacular English and the musical structure of African American spirituals. Scott, and each of these women responded to the living energy upon which gospel music is built.
She was admired in Cleveland and likely took trips with other singers to the city in a route around the country that was done together. At a famous gospel sing-off in Chicago between Mahalia Jackson and Roberta Martin, Scott would be introduced as a musical guest along with Sallie Martin and Robert Anderson. Marovich’s book documents, “Three months later, on August 18, , Jackson squared off against Roberta Martin at Tabernacle Baptist Church with Myrtle Scott, Sallie Martin, and Robert Anderson as special musical guests.”5 Myrtle Scott, along with the other women, sang from her soul, and wasn’t afraid to let people know it. Digitally, one recording is accessible via Spotify, entitled “The Lord Will Make A Way.”
Bessie Folk: Short Stature, Soaring Voice
Born in 1923, Bessie Folk was “the first girl of the Roberta Martin Singers,” joining in 1939. She originally belonged to the Stepney Five, an all-women’s group, but was scouted by Martin after she heard her sing. “I was the shortest and the fattest in the group,” Folk joked at a 1981 Smithsonian conference on Roberta Martin. “They used to call me Little Miss Five by Five. I used to get kind of peeved, you know, but then I got used to it.”6
She was also the founder of the Gospelaires in 1950 and later joined the Sallie Martin Singers in 1963. On the Roberta Martin Singers hit, “Only A Look” Bessie Folk is the lead vocalist and her vocal performance brought more light to the Chicago gospel scene than it had ever seen before. She was also a choir director, leading the Mount Pisgah Radio Choir for several years before her passing on February 1st, 2001. She is often included with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Dorothy Love Coates, Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner and others who were close to the gospel music movement that closely preceded that of the Civil Rights in the 1960s.
Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner: A Singer, Pianist, and Accompanist
Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner, known both as Gwendolyn Cooper and Gwendolyn Lightner, was a singer, pianist, and accompanist born in Brookport, Illinois in 1925. She was the protégé of Emma Jackson, a prominent singer and publisher throughout the mid-twentieth century. She attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and Lyon and Healy Academy of Music in Chicago, and after finishing her classical training in the early 1940s, she became interested in gospel music through contacts with gospel giants such as Kenneth Morris and Roberta Martin.
A member of the singing group that formed the fellowship in Chicago, birthing some of the major figures in the genre, she sang at the National Baptist Convention and would later become a major figure in gospel not only in California but all of the West. She began playing piano at eleven and not long after was accompanying the church choir before she turned thirteen. She attended Thomas Dorsey’s early conventions and played on several of his concerts, and was a major part of the heart of what we consider gospel music today. She also sang with the Roberta Martin Singers, Willie Webb, Louise Overall Weaver, and Ruth Jones (later known as Dinah Washington.) She was involved with several other musical projects including an album of African American spirituals created in part by the Smithsonian Museum and worked with Professor James Earle Hines, a powerful gospel choir leader in the 1940s and fifties.
Cooper Lightner moved from Chicago to Los Angeles at a high point in her career, bringing the sound and the musical traditions of the city with her. According to Jacqueline Codgell DjeDje, an ethnomusicologist at UCLA since the 1980s, Cooper Lightner brought the “oomph” to gospel in the West.7 Cooper Lightner gave a lecture at UCLA in the Ethnomusicology department on Gospel in LA in 1989, and it’s still available in the department’s online archives. Luckily for us, recordings of her playing can be found on the album accompanying the NPR series Wade in the Water, a 26-part show that explores African-American sacred musical traditions. The third volume of the album was released by the Smithsonian Folkways label and features her playing on tracks four, six, and eight.
These women together with other talented sacred-song-singers of the time changed the face of gospel music not only in the United States but throughout the world. These singers all knew one another and sang together, and other major musicians have come up in the same way. Robert Glasper and Bilal attending the same school, the rise of hip-hop in small Brooklyn communities, and the rise of groups like the Soulquarians and N.E.R.D. all stand as examples of the strength of the tribe.8
Impacting a host of other genres, gospel music and its roots in Chicago permeate deeply to the soul of African-American experiences and distill them in a community-based art form that expresses pain, joy, and the willpower to overcome. There is much to be learned from previous generations, musically and otherwise. No doubt, gospel music has much to learn from the example, artistry and community effort of Jackson, Scott, Folk and Cooper-Lightner. In the principle of sankofa, a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana, we can move forward while looking back, learning all that our ancestors taught us.9
- Robert Marovich. A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music. (Champaign, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2015), 123.
- Marovich. A City Called Heaven, 151.
- Ibid., 152, 123, 155, 158.
- (7) Thurber, Jon. “Obituary : Gwendolyn Lightner; Choir Director Gave Gospel Music on West Coast a Modern Beat.” Los Angeles Times. September 06, 1999. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-sep-06-mn-7389-story.html.
- (8) Jacinta Howard. “How the Soulquarians Changed Hip-Hop and Soul Music in the 2000s.” The Boombox. July 30, 2018. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://theboombox.com/the-soulquarians-changed-hip-hop-soul-music/.
- (9) “The Power of Sankofa: Know History.” Carter G. Woodson Center. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.berea.edu/cgwc/the-power-of-sankofa/.