In this post, part-time OHMA student Bud Kliment reviews Glorious Mahalia by Stacy Harrop and Peace Be Till, by multimedia composer Zachary James Watkins as performed by the Kronos Quartet in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Great voices are often heard at Carnegie Hall, but on a recent evening the great voices heard there were from recorded interviews. On January 19th, the Friday after Martin Luther King Day, the Kronos Quartet premiered two musical works at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall that not only commemorated King’s legacy, but also showcased oral history.
The first piece, Glorious Mahalia by Stacy Harrop, celebrated the voices of two iconic Chicagoans, Studs Terkel and Mahalia Jackson. Terkel, a veteran WFMT radio interviewer, helped to popularize oral history as the author of Hard Times, Working, The Good War, and other books. Jackson, a foundational figure of gospel music, was one of America’s finest singers. Terkel first heard her in 1947, on a record playing in a store. “I am floored and lifted,” he recalled of the experience. “I am caught.” He found her at the Greater Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, and began featuring her regularly on his radio show. She became an international star. They were friends for 25 years.
Any music about Mahalia Jackson must contend with her music, how her mighty singing could dwarf anything in its path. For four of Glorious Mahalia’s five movements, composer Harrop cannily uses Jackson’s speaking voice, excerpted from two Terkel broadcasts, from 1957 and 1963.
Jackson’s spoken words are as persuasive as her singing. In the interview selections she attacks racism, boldly describing the contradiction she felt as a celebrated onstage performer who could be easily disrespected on the street. Under her stinging testimony, the string quartet plays jagged and discordant notes. In the piece’s fourth movement, Mahalia’s singing shines through. Her version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” is centrally positioned by Harrop as a healing, transformative thing, a reminder of the birth and purpose of the spirituals--the way out of no way. After it, in the piece’s last movement, Mahalia and Studs are optimistic about King and the flowering civil rights effort. “You’re on your way,” Studs tells her, and she agrees. Theirs is a classic duet, two voices acknowledging the historical moment.
The evening’s second premiere, Peace Be Till, by multimedia composer Zachary James Watkins, was musically adventurous, even as it utilized a traditional oral history interview. In 2017, Watkins and Kronos violinist David Harrington recorded Clarence B. Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer and speechwriter (and a Columbia University graduate.) Edited and occasionally repeated, Jones’ recollections, told in his rich baritone, complement the deep, resonant strings of the quartet. Watkins calls them “the blueprint of this composition.” Jones is fond of using religious imagery when discussing King, and describes his first meeting with him as “the making of a disciple.” An artist working with sound, Watkins is drawn to Jones’s circular description of his role as speechwriter: King’s voice was in Jones’ head, and Jones’ words became King’s voice.
Because Mahalia Jackson was King’s favorite gospel singer (she appeared with him during the Montgomery bus boycott and other rallies, and later sang at his funeral), she also figures in Peace Be Till. Jones describes how he and King had scripted a speech for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. King read a portion of it that day when suddenly Jackson, who stood near the podium, began urging him in her unmistakable voice, “Tell them about the dream, Martin, tell them about the dream.” Jones saw what was happening, turned to a stranger and said, “These people don’t know it but they’re about to go to church.” King resumed speaking. “I have a dream,” he began.
As contemporary entries in the citywide festival The ‘60s: The Years that Changed America, Glorious Mahalia and Peace Be Till illustrate again how oral history can stimulate artists and be powerfully evocative for those experiencing their art. Both compositions confidently share listening space with the voices of the past, in fact draw a formal dignity from their narrator-collaborators, reinforced by the superb playing of the Kronos Quartet. While each work evokes King and his legacy, the different voices in them remind everyone that the fight for civil rights was a people’s movement, driven by broadcasters, lawyers, singers and so many others who fueled the effort with their energy and music.
The twin premieres also alert listeners to the important role Mahalia Jackson played in the movement. She used her fame to offer forthright views on injustice and served as an influential member of King’s circle. Her symbolic role is no less important. Through her peerless singing of gospel songs and spirituals (“Mahalia took the people back to slavery times,” said a fellow singer), she moved from a Chicago church to the front lines in Washington. In this way her personal journey follows the epic arc of Black American history.
If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more on the subject of oral history in music as it relates to Black American history please check out Bud Kliment's recent review of “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore in Texas Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation’” which was also posted to the OHMA blog.
Bud Kliment is a part-time OHMA student. His master's thesis will be about American song collecting and the development of oral history. A native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Columbia College, Bud is a Deputy Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, helping to organize and oversee the annual awards in journalism, books, drama, and music. He has also worked regularly as a freelance writer, specializing in music and the other performing arts. Bud has published young adult biographies of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, along with travel guides, cookbooks, and museum labels. He wrote a radio series for BBC World Service that used Motown songs to help teach English. In a younger incarnation, he ran a record store.