Before she became the popular face of gospel music, before she sang at the Washington Monument leading up to MLK’s speech, Mahalia Jackson had to arrive on the scene. She moved up to Chicago from New Orleans in the 1920s, part of that huge wave of African-Americans who migrated north. Those from Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee often ended up in Detroit or Chicago. If you were living in Virginia or North Carolina or Georgia, you might point yourself north and wind up in Philadelphia or New York. It was in Chicago that Jackson met Thomas A. Dorsey, a blues singer from Georgia who’d had a conversion experience (plus a few nerous breakdowns) and switched from raunchy blues to writing and selling gospel songs.
I found this record, No Matter How You Pray, at a thrift store in St. Petersburg, Florida back in the 90s (it pops and sizzles like hot oil). It’s on Apollo Records, which was the label Jackson recorded on (selling millions) before becoming an official Columbia Records star (she had recorded a few earlier 78s on Columbia in the 30s). Aside from her powerful, bluesy singing, part of the Mahalia sound is the overlay of organ and piano. The piano bangs out some percussive chords and the organ cooks away underneath, providing heavy bass in places. There’s also some Latin-sounding shaker and conga action back there, a little like a sanctified mambo. When you work in Connecticut, being "on your way to Canaan" takes on a whole different meaning, but this track still captures the electricity of divine inspiration. It’s not hard to imagine walking past some unadorned storefront church on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and hearing this jam coming from inside.
The heavy organ also reminds me of Sun Ra, another southerner who relocated to Chicago. I like to think of Ra, born Sonny Blount in Alabama but who claimed to be from Saturn, Thomas Dorsey, who recorded some seriously raunchy double entendre blues and hokum tracks under the name Georgia Tom when he wasn’t penning his sacred material, and Mahalia, all working in the same city, mixing it up – sacred, secular, extraterrestrial.
"I’m On My Way to Canaan" - Mahalia Jackson
"What’s That I Smell" - Georgia Tom (a.k.a Thomas A. Dorsey) and Hannah May
(Skynyrd owes them, big time)
"Super Blonde" - Sun Ra and His Arkestra
(Recorded in Chicago, 1956)
"Peace in the Valley" - George Jones
(written by Thomas A. Dorsey)
(I prefer this version to the more famous rendition done by Elvis. I love the way the song conjures those idyllic visions of heaven as depicted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their pamphlets — playing children, lions laying down with lambs, etc.)