August 31, 1951, The Music Inn of Lenox, Massachussetts. Mahalia Jackson-vocals; Mildred Falls-piano.
In August 1951, New Orleans–born and Chicago-based gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) was invited to a ten-day roundtable at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, organized by Marshall Stearns, a Hunter College English literature professor and a principal catalyst for the then-nascent field of jazz studies. At the very moment when Jackson’s star was on the rise, as she rode the popularity and critical acclaim of her recordings for Apollo Records, jazz critics, musicians, and fans, grappled with challenges to the “jazz tradition” by bebop’s vanguardism. Called “Definitions in Jazz,” the roundtable featured lectures and panel discussions led by Stearns, anthropologist Richard Waterman, and music folklorist Willis James designed, in Stearns’s words, to establish “common ground upon which the discipline of jazz criticism and research could be based.” Jackson was called upon to illustrate the “blue tonality,” West African–derived “hot rhythm,” and “Negro folk cry” that the three professors identified as jazz’s seminal and enduring vernacular traits. The appearance for the jazz cognoscenti at the Music Inn represented an intermediate stage in Jackson’s escalating stardom, between the mega-hit recording that launched her nationally among African Americans in 1948, “Move on up a Little Higher,” and her signing by CBS and Columbia Records in 1954, which introduced her to white audiences and made her a pop-cultural celebrity.
Recordings of the “Definitions in Jazz” proceedings, some made by ethnomusicologist Arthur Alberts, provide documentation of twenty-one songs that Jackson, with the sympathetic support of her longtime piano accompanist Mildred Falls, sang for the roundtable’s attendees. Instead of simply plugging her own Apollo sides, Jackson showcased a substantial number of recently popular gospel compositions, many of which she never recorded commercially. One of these was “He’s Pleading in Glory for Me,” a mid-tempo gospel ballad written by Robert Anderson and Elyse Yancey that contrasted the drive and swing of the many crowd-pleasing, up-tempo “bounce” numbers that she also performed in Lenox. Part of the expressive power of Jackson’s elegant reading of “He’s Pleading in Glory for Me” emerges from the deceptively subtle dialogue between the song’s pentatonic melody and Jackson’s selective interpolation of blue notes, the latter used rhetorically to reinforce the dramatic arc of both the verse and the chorus. The published lyrics, from which Jackson deviates slightly, are as follows.
Though in this world of sorrow a stranger I may be
I’m tossed and driven but someday I’ll be free
For I have a friend who died on Calvary
He’s pleading in glory for me.
I was tired, I was worn, I was blind and could not see
King Jesus in glory came down and lifted me
Through hard trials and tribulations, from bondage he set me free
Right now he’s pleading in glory for me.
This recording is from a collection held by the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. The online catalog record for this full collection can be found in the IUCAT system: United States, Massachusetts, Lenox, Afro-Americans, 1951 . (Accession Number: 68-057-F)
Permission Information: "He’s Pleading In Glory For Me," is published by Unichappell Music Inc. (BMI) and this recording is used with permission of the Mahalia Jackson estate.