soul summer, directed by Questlove, is a gripping homage to the almost forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and New York’s black community. But the festival didn’t just feature musicians from New York; he called on artists from across the country and beyond. San Francisco is represented by psychedelic soul pioneers Sly and the Family Stone. Motown artists like Gladys Knight and the Pips and Stevie Wonder represent Detroit. And Mahalia Jackson, Jesse Jackson and the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir take the stage for Chicago.
Mahalia Jackson’s big records came out in the 1940s and 1950s; in 1969, it was an institution. Specifically, it was an institution closely associated with the civil rights movement, which embraced gospel music as a spiritual call for equality in this world.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song was “Precious Lord,” by Chicago gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey, written after the death of Dorsey’s wife and child. Mahalia often sang it at King’s civil rights rallies. She is sometimes accompanied there by the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, under the musical direction of saxophonist Ben Branch. Branch was the last person King spoke to before he was shot; he asked her to play “Precious Lord”. Mahalia Jackson sang the song at King’s funeral in April 1968, just over a year before the Harlem festival was held.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, leader of the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, also stood by Branch and King at the time of the assassination. He was on stage at the festival to give an inspirational address and rally support for the work of Operation Breadbasket organizing boycotts of businesses that would not hire black employees or contractors. Jackson describes King’s final moments twice, once on stage and once years later in an interview with Questlove. In the film, the paired narratives are intercut with archival footage of King’s labor and death as the band plays the intro to “Precious Lord”. The sequence is almost unbearably sad.
The song isn’t just about sadness, though. Jesse Jackson defines King’s work not as an end, but as an inspiration for the ongoing work of liberation. He compares King to Moses who couldn’t see the Promised Land. “He didn’t die crying or scared. He died asking the Lord to reach out to him to help lead us.
Mahalia Jackson also finds joy in performance. She asked singer Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers to help her get the song across (“Baby, Mahalia isn’t feeling too good today, I need you to help me sing this song”) . Both treat Dorsey’s famous composition as an exercise in jaw-dropping virtuosity.
Staples has one of the greatest voices of all time across any genre, and the camera pans to people in the audience laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief as she roars “Precious Lord, take my hand! ” ad libbing “Oh yeah!” and “Yes, I am!”, putting a “Hah!” at the end of each line. She literally goes up and down on stage as if the power of her own singing propels her out of the Earth.
Mahalia is somehow even more stunning. She sings each line with enough vibrato to shake the Earth like a seismic wave from an opera. For the climax, she and Staples call and answer on the same microphone. “Hold me! Hold me!” they scream back and forth, leaning close enough to hold each other. “Man, I’m telling you,” Mavis tells the interviewer, looking back, “those were the days of my life.”
She and everyone on stage and in the audience look like they couldn’t be happier singing a song reminiscing about an incredibly traumatic and horrific death. It is not death that they celebrate, of course, but life, their own life and their genius. When the world, or the country, wants you dead and forgotten, making unforgettable living music is kind of a challenge. Each performer of soul summer knows that. But no one talks about it more forcefully than Mahalia of Chicago.