Just Sing: Mahalia Jackson, “If I can Help Somebody”

So my Gospel Music and American Lit class is entering the black gospel phase of the course in earnest … reading from Darden’s history of black gospel, watching Say Amen Somebody this week, and starting James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head next week. This, combined with the work I started over the summer with black gospel has had me revisiting some of the classics and masters and mistresses of the form, which leads me to today’s installment of “Just Sing”: Mahalia Jackson doing “If I Can Help Somebody,” recorded at the height of worldwide acclaim (there’s no video, just audio, thus no point in an embed viewer).

I cop to having the kind of hopelessly bourgeois tastes of a very white white-gospel boy. My taste in black gospel runs somewhere between the purposefully charactericatured piety that Jackson often played up for white audiences (most obviously in her television appearances - though a notable exception to this is her live album from Newport in 1956 … she absolutely destroys the place with “His Eye is On the Sparrow”) and her more instinctively uninhibited sanctified songstyle that brought her to fame on the live stage of the black gospel circuit in her early days. I appreciate the architecturally complex improvisations and the long, histrionically ornamented rubato passages generally plotted into the music that the purists love and venerate. But these songs and this style usually leave me cold and a little irritated, which says more about me than anything. But there you are. There actually IS an accounting for taste (mine, for sure, and most people’s usually), though now’s not the time.

I say this only by of explaining the (for me) sweet spot that “If I Can Help Somebody” hits for me: the emotional arc of the song has a discernable and well-defined through-line (I mean, it is composed in a such a way that there is a dynamic trajectory built into the score itself). Yet Jackson subdues the song to her own will and way all the same, threading in these nearly magical vocal filigrees (listen to the last lines of the first verse around the 1:15 mark, though the effect is really there throughout the whole song) and then really leaning hard into certain passages in that full-voiced roar that manages to be both towering and warm all at once (in the chorus: her rendering of “shall nawtuh …. be in vain” thunders so mightily over the enterprise that she becomes momentarily domineering, and then there’s the “Nooooohhhhh” that follows, where she backs off, not necessarily in force, but in intonation, infusing the word with this baleful moaning mournful mystery of mercy).

Much of this effect is made possible by the arrangement, which has her singing over this massive string bed. This is a common feature of this and other recordings of the era. And the studioized sound was, I know, heresy to a lot of those aforementioned purists in the day. To them, the overdone orchestrations that were more Hollywood than holy were evidence that Halie hadn’t so much got over as gone over to the dark side - sold out to commercialism and compromised her storied piety (though see The Fan Who Knew Too Much for accounts of Jackson’s off-stage personality that suggest a much more complicated person than her onstage persona with whom her fans were encouraged to identify).

Still, I love it all, all the gratuitous orchestrations and swampy melodrama and the typecasted vocals … it all lends to the song a kind of schlock and awe effect that doesn’t bother hiding the two very different worlds that come together in these recordings: unlettered sanctified songstress meets the flowing sentimentality of midcentury American music orchestration and merges in the unlikely person and performance of an international gospel mega-diva.

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  1. NG wrote:

    Hope you’re introducing that class to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, her amazing guitar playing, and some of the songs she wrote — “Don’t Take Everyone to Be Your Friend” and “Strange Things are Happening Everyday.”

  2. Auke wrote:

    I always really loved Marion Williams better than Mahalia…

  3. NG wrote:

    I prefer Mahalia’s recordings on the Apollo label before she went to Columbia where I thought the records were overproduced with too much lush backing. Since this is partly a SGM site, it is of interest that she recorded Get Away Jordan, Didn’t It Rain and I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy for Apollo. I mentioned Sister Rosetta Tharpe earlier and just enjoyed a PBS special on her called “The Godmother of Rock n’ Roll.”

  4. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    Rosetta Tharpe rocks! I love her rendition of Daniel in the Lions Den. Her music was filled with raw energy and enthusiasm.

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