Mark Burford

Sep 17, 2019

Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field

Oxford University Press 2018

purchase at Mahalia Jackson, the great mid-twentieth century gospel singer, thought of herself as an embodiment of the history of African Americans in the United States. She understood that her family’s background, as they moved from enslavement in Louisiana to farming in the same rural area to New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century and then her own move to Chicago with the Great Migration was emblematic of the experiences of generations of black people. In Mahalia Jackson & the Black Gospel Field (Oxford University Press, 2018), Mark Burford describes Jackson as both an exemplary figure and an exceptional figure. Ending the book in 1955 just as Jackson reached the height of her career after she released her first recording with a major label and was hosting her own television show, Burford uses the first part of Jackson’s career to tell the story of the development of gospel music set against her experiences, the networks within which she moved, and the overlapping contexts of black culture and American political history. Adapting Pierre Bordieu’s ideas, he argues that to study gospel music we must understand the cultural field created by all the players in the industry—the performers, composers, business owners, churches, audiences, and media company executives that shaped gospel music. For a time, Mahalia Jackson was in the center of this network, and Burford uses her connections to explore this field. She grew up with the industry and eventually became one of the best-known gospel singers in the United States by navigating the gospel music industry with her potent combination of a great voice, charisma, and business acumen. Besides telling the compelling story of gospel music and Mahalia Jackson, Burford analyzes Jackson’s voice and her early Apollo recordings using innovative techniques grounded in the listener’s experience. Much more than a biography of Mahalia Jackson, this book is a reimagining of the study of gospel music. Mark Burford is Associate Professor of Music at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he is also chair of the American Studies program. His research and teaching focuses on twentieth-century popular music in the United States, with particular focus on African American music, and late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Austro-German concert music. His scholarship has appeared in numerous journals and edited collections. His article “Sam Cooke as Pop Album Artist—A Reinvention in Three Songs” received the Society for American Music’s 2012 Irving Lowens Award for the outstanding article on American music. He is the author of Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field, released last fall by Oxford University Press, and editor of the forthcoming Mahalia Jackson Reader, an anthology of writings on Jackson that he is editing for Oxford’s Readers on American Musicians series.
Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.

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Kristen Turner

Kristen M. Turner is a lecturer in the music and honors departments at North Carolina State University. Her research centers on race and class in American popular entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.

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