I’m not sure of many things in life, but of this I am certain: There is truth in Mahalia Jackson’s vibrant contralto. Joy. Beauty. Strength. Sadness. Spirituality and redemption. The collective human struggle is embedded in her voice— the depths of the darkness and the triumphant glow of the light. It’s critically agreed upon that Jackson is the greatest gospel singer ever, but I’d venture a step further and call her the greatest singer ever. At least in the history of recorded music. While she borrowed from masters like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey—infusing traditional black gospel with their decadent blues sound; a pig foot, a bottle of beer and a Bible—she sang her praise to the heavens like none before or after. And the people—whether black, white, rich, poor, Christian or secular—took notice.
This new double-disc addition to the existing multitude of Jackson compilations spans the heart of the legendary singer’s recording career (1954-67), offering up everything from more polished studio recordings to raw, heart-wrenching live performances. The set’s only flaws are the packaging and liner notes—which leave much to be desired—and that only one of the 37 tracks (a live version of “I’m Goin’ To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song”) is previously unreleased. But in fairness, even Mahalia Jackson can’t draw water from a stone; with such a seminal artist, it’s not long after death before the treasures left behind are ravaged like a Pharaoh’s tomb, and with Jackson there’s been 32 years to plunder. Regardless, The Essential Mahalia Jackson’s songs are so powerful and will make you feel so intensely that the album is a worthy addition to any collection.