Published on July 9th, 2019 | by Nina Pulley
[Listen] Gospel in the Streets Playlist
Mahalia Jackson was going to sign with Decca Records. She recorded four gospel tunes in a Chicago studio, but after a season of unsuccessful sales they asked her if she wanted to sing secular music instead. She refused. After a few more declined offers, Decca dropped her, but Jackson continued singing gospel music the way she’d been before, avoiding the secular music industry on all counts. However, on the fateful day she would meet Duke Ellington, all of that changed.
Ellington was the only secular artist Jackson with whom Jackson would work, on the basis of character alone. Jackson recalled the composer’s love for others, his calm demeanor despite life’s many challenging seasons, and the deep regard for his parents as evidence of religious faith, although Ellington, due to his successful musical career and the compromises he had to make because of it, saw himself as much less than a holy man. The two had two vastly different public images: one was a devout Christian dedicated to singing spirituals to a church-affiliated audience, the other a man who’s music was associated with the smoky jazz clubs that filled the night life of the rich and famous. Yet, the two recorded a song that stood outside of the realm of genre or crowd and reached much higher than any other label could.
Gospel music and the blues have always been connected. Thomas Dorsey, formerly a blues pianist for Ma Rainey, considered by many to be the “Mother of the Blues.,” became Mahalia Jackson’s musical mentor. He played piano in a speakeasy owned by Al Capone before he himself became known as the “father of (black) gospel music,” writing one of foremost hymns in all of gospel, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Like anything, coincidentally, the two styles branched off – part of the same tree, but its leaves hardly ever shading the same patch of ground. Except when they do.
The 1958 recording of Come Sunday stands as an example of the branches of African-American music intertwining. It shows both the secular and gospel worlds uniting in times of social upheaval, sparking a collective vision for African-American & indigenous people that reaches all faith communities and all backgrounds. Even today, we can all rally around justice, equality, and spiritual freedom, because it’s been done before.
This playlist exemplifies this musical realm of freedom, with pairings that, through sampling, cross genres in the name of artistic vision and a meticulous curatorial sense. Gospel on the streets is not an oxymoron, but a reality. In the first two tracks of the playlist, the same introductory chords that enter Come Sunday in a moody yet sweet tonality introduce Overjoyed, suggesting the musical influence of Ellington on Stevie Wonder. Sounds travel across time, space, and style, with hip-hop production shaping and shifting the dominant conventions of jazz and gospel, reaching both the young and the old.