Mahalia and melisma

I did my last Rockwell Matters WNYC radio show last night (Memorial Day), broadcasting live for a a change of pace; when and if it comes up on the WNYC web site, I'll link to it. The subject, designed to complement the American Music Week that Terrance McKnight is overseeing on his Evening Music show, was about how my early exposure to Burl Ives, Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson initiated a broadening of my tastes that has led to my latter-day rampant catholicity.

In the script, I stressed the operatic qualities of the three singers' voices, and how they opened me up to the possible varieties of vocal production in opera. Ives was a French-style, pre-verismo tenor, complete with voix mixte and floating head tones, and he developed a penchant for folkish classical singing of the kind that became widespread in the early music movement. Robeson was a true operatic bass, in an era when blacks weren't allowed to sing opera. Jackson was a gospel belter, one of enomous power and grandeur (and musicality and sensitivity, too). Had she been allowed and had she chosen, she too could have dominated our operatic stages.

But one aspect of her singing I didn't mention, and it was equally important to me as a boy, being as I was lily-white and all. I had never encountered black church singing before listening to her records of gospel music and Christmas carols. The carols were especially striking. She ornamented these bedrock, deeply familiar songs with all manner of grace notes and appoggiaturas and bluesy flattenings and slidings up to the pitch. I had never heard anything like that, and I was thrilled -- in the same way that a lot of people were thrilled (or horrified) when years later Jose Feliciano applied similar ornamentation to the National Anthem at a World Series. Without Mahalia, I might never have loved opera, or loved it in the same way. But without her, I might never have loved gospel and the blues and rock & roll like I do, either.

May 27, 2008 1:52 PM |


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