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A Shout From The Attic: The June Years - 7

...As Mahalia Jackson filled and warmed my heart that drab December day, so the singers of songs, and the weavers of glad dreams, together with those who scatter gloom with the light of their smiles fill and warm the cheerless, setting them again to face the light of life and the hopeful dawn of a new day...

Ronnie Bray continues his enriching autobiography.

”Oh, come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …” sang an enormous voice over my car radio.

It was late December 1968, and my beautiful Jaguar Mark II was whispering its way through the blackness of early evening rain along John William Street in Huddersfield. I turned up the
volume. “Oh, come ye, oh, come ye to Be’eth’le’hem … “ The voice was pure and penetrating, drawing out the notes as if each one was a prayer pleading to be heard. The singer, and her testimony of that distant night when world history was changed forever, moved me to tears that fell in great drops blurring my vision.

I eased the car to the side of the road, parked up, and put on my hazard lights. I wasn’t going anywhere until this carol was finished. I felt the thrill of inspiration course through every
fibre of my being at her impassioned entreaty, “Oh, come let us adore hi’im, Chri’ist the Lord … “ rising to a crescendo that reverberated through the car and shook the walnut trim. The
singer rung her staggering gift to an unforgettable finale of “Chri’i’i’iist the Lord.” The seemingly endless final note, perfectly controlled to the last growl, died away leaving the
night air charged with enchantment that lingered in the velvet silence that followed the most perfect rendition of that old favourite that I had ever heard, and could not have imagined.

The announcer broke the spell. I resented his interruption. ”That was Mahalia Jackson, the world’s greatest gospel singer.” Mahalia Jackson! Her name sat on my lips as I repeated it over and over so as not to forget the bringer of unexpected Christmas inspiration to a night traveller coming from and going to - I don’t remember. Although I had never heard of her before, I remembered her song, her voice, and her spirit, long after all was still and the rude noise of almost Christmas bled back into my consciousness through the glass. Only music and true love can stir the heart as mine had been stirred, and I was comforted.

Wiping my streaming eyes and moist cheeks, I slid the stick into ‘drive’ and sped on my way, the motor silently slicing through the shiny wet darkness of a night of gaudy Christmas lights and industrial tinsel that seemed starkly superficial compared to the old carol heard in the depths of my soul for the first time.

Some years later when standing outside Kathy Roger’s in Ipswich, ringing her doorbell in vain, that I spied a vinyl disc in a waste paper basket evidently destined for the dustbin. In
idle curiosity I pulled it from the bin and read the label: “Mahalia Jackson at Newport Jazz Festival.” I rang the bell fruitlessly twice more before setting off for home clutching my battered and scratched find. Once more, I heard that voice as a gospel singer brought the Newport Jazz Festival to its feet. Some tracks were unplayable because of surface damage, but those that were playable were wonderful. When my last daughter was born, she was named Alexandra Fiona Mahalia.

That record went everywhere with me, and I played it whenever I could. When I went to the Ipswich meeting house I played it over the house system. Its rousing and inspiring messages of faith and hope penetrated every corner of the building. Mahalia was a heavenly choir of one who continually fed my soul, for I never tired of her and her remarkable voice that rumbled in the cellar and flew on an angelic spiral staircase all the way to the attic.

During one stay in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, I requested one of her tracks over hospital radio. Amazingly, they managed to find some of her albums and, although the announcer managed to get both his feet into his mouth when he was announcing her name, it floated me away from my present concerns and anxieties for four minutes and thirty-seven seconds.

One day it was playing in the Ipswich meetinghouse when our Welsh organist, Sister Owens, came in to play the organ. As she marched down the chapel aisle to seat herself at ‘her’ organ, Mahalia was at her electrifying best: “If I – have wounded a’hany so’houl to’oda’hay’ay’ay’ay …”I’hif I – ha’have caused one foot to go’o’hoh aha’stra’hay …” and my spirit rose with her inimitable intonation. I beamed at the middle-aged Welsh organist and sought her approval for the world’s greatest gospel singer.

“How did you like that?” I asked, beaming like a nincompoop. “I don’t like her a bit,” came the prompt and terrible rejoinder. “Why not?” I asked, dumfounded. Her reply was uncompromising: “She slurs her notes!” she said in rich Welsh tones with nary attempt to hide her contempt and, opening the organ lid with a bang that made the residents of nearby necropolis twitch with shock, she pounded on the keys and drowned out my precious Mahalia. I could tell by the grim line of her iron mouth that the discussion was at an end and
could only be reopened with the Welsh dragon by taking my life in my hands. I voted to live and walked sadly away.

Bruch’s Violin Concerto in D could be described as horsehair scraping across catgut, but it would not do it justice. Mahalia did slur her notes and she did it in ways that I had never
heard before. But instead of detracting from the music, the expert manipulation of her voice as an instrument of praise and testimony carried devotional music to a height that I could
never have anticipated or even dreamed of if I had not heard her sing.

Few can sing like the great Mahalia, and not everyone can sing well enough to become a famous star. But that does not stop the merry heart or the heart filled with love from issuing
forth its melodies to bless and sanctify the world, for where love is spoken or sung, the angels bend their wings low and breathe blessings from a better place.

The songs of millions of nameless singers ride unheard on wings of winds that sweep across the earth, visiting hearts with truth and love, being no less exquisite for being unknown. We honour them, for their boons are greater than those borne on angelwing and bless not only those who hear their secret music, but those who share, frequently by no more than a glance, the silent hymn of their inmost heart and transmit hope. Their voices, their feelings, their expressions, turn the tired lives of desert-dwellers whose habitation is the emotional wasteland from barren hopelessness into the full blossoming of life – if only for a time.

As Mahalia Jackson filled and warmed my heart that drab December day, so the singers of songs, and the weavers of glad dreams, together with those who scatter gloom with the light of their smiles fill and warm the cheerless, setting them again to face the light of life and the hopeful dawn of a new day. And if they slur their notes, what of it? That odious slurring is the sound of honesty and faith: the sure marker of mortal angels about their commissions among those who can hear what is echoed in their own hearts.


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