Tag Archives: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022

Singing is one of the most integrative activities we can do. It uses heart, soul, mind and strength to express our desire and open us to receive good things from God and others. When we sing in a group (and we will again, some day) it is often a unitive experience. So let’s sing with Mahalia Jackson . I think she can help with 2022.

When Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 in the category of “Early Influences,” even their watered-down bio said her “voice hit audiences with the force of a hurricane.” That hurricane did not just emanate from her birthplace of New Orleans, it came from God and her own suffering. The opposite of a storm that knocks down, Mahalia is a storm that lifts up.

As such a faithful and troubled woman she is a great guide to yet another troubled year. Trouble and faith go together. We are all suffering the pandemic and the uncertainty of our politics. And Black people, in particular, are still suffering the burden of needing to “get over,” as institutions highlight their struggle and this week the media reports the instant barrage of defamation hurled at any prospective Black, woman Supreme Court justice.

Mahalia Jackson performing How I Got Over in the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington DC.

When I remembered Mahalia Jackson last week on her death day (January 27) [song link], I was once again moved by her iconic rendition of “How I Got Over.” She most famously sang this song [song link] after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. And she’s been singing it in my head and heart since last Thursday, which I greatly appreciate.

She wanted her music to be for everyone. She told a reporter, “I have hopes that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and Black people in this country.” That’s a work for Jesus. People try to do it without Him, but they rarely get very far. Jackson took songs other people just sang and she filled them with spirit and The Spirit in a way that made them a force for good, and a force for change. When I listen to her, even now, after she’s been dead for fifty years, she changes me. She does me good.

A transformation meditation

That experience of transformation is why I wanted to remind you of her today and give us all a chance to lodge her song “How I Got Over” into some sturdy place in our memories. We can come back to places where we have met God again and again. Those places comfort our troubled souls; they give us a place to stand when we are under attack; and they create a solid place from which to launch into whatever will require our courage and passion. This song is such a place for me, maybe it will be for you, too.

Here are some annotated lyrics. My idea is to expand what the lyrics could mean for us and lead us into meditation as we face what we will face today. I think Mahalia Jackson intends to lead us through our deep struggle into a place where we give thanks. Just like she got over and is getting over, she wants us to  “get over” into our re-birthplace in Jesus. Let’s use the song for all it is worth.

How I got over
How did I make it over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
How I made it over
Going on over all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

I don’t speak Jackson’s vernacular or sing well in her musical style. So what? I don’t think she cares, and neither should I. She is turning my heart toward wonder. That’s what she cares about and so should I. All day I am tempted to attend to the forces and voices that put me under their malign control; this song is about turning away from those powers and seeing what is good. The question is, “How did all this life happen and how does it keep happening? How did all this good happen? How did the Lord bring me to this place where I would be meditating on this song and looking for meaning and hope?” It is a wonder.

Tell me how we got over Lord
Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did we make it over
Tell me how we got over Lord
I’ve been falling and rising all these years
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

When Jackson turns the subject to “we,” I think she is first referring to the Black struggle which she felt as an abandoned child in the Jim Crow South of her youth and then felt in new ways after she joined the “great migration” to Chicago where she struggled to survive. She’s singing about the terror of facing down white supremacy and the capricious violence of the United States as the Civil Rights movement progressed. “How did we get here telling our story on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial among all these politicians and movie stars? How did we stay so resilient and faithful though all our struggle, all our falling and rising?” It is a wonder.

It is a rich stanza full of Bible imagery. Jesus is falling and rising as we observe the stations of the cross on our way to our own death and rising with him. In like manner, the song alludes to the promise we will “get over” the Jordan River and into the promised land. Jesus is baptized into, identifies with, our sin and death in the Jordan. Like the Israelites passed over on dry land, we follow Jesus through death into life, a death now made impermanent by his gracious work. “How did we make it over?” Only by the Lord’s grace. It is a wonder.

So Mahalia unveils the wonder and invites us into it.

But, soon as I can see Jesus
The man that died for me
Man that bled and suffered
And he hung on Calvary

And I want to thank him for how he brought me
And I want to thank God for how he taught me
Oh thank my God how he kept me
I’m gonna thank him ’cause he never left me
Then I’m gonna thank God for  old time religion
And I’m gonna thank God for giving me a vision
One day, I’m gonna join the heavenly choir
I’m gonna sing and never get tired

We can use a song like we use an icon. It gives us a musical vision of Jesus and we experience that connection heart, soul, mind and strength. It is worth singing this song with Ms. Jackson enough times to feel it more than think it, sink into it and sense all the nuances and even beyond them — “Jesus brought me to this place, taught me, kept me, never left me.”

When she thanks God for “old time religion” it is not just religion that used to be popular but isn’t; I think she means the Spirit-filled experience that transcends time and culture. We are one with the first disciples of Jesus. Being in God’s presence gives us a vision beyond the boundaries of our humanity. As a result, we can let loose our innate imagination and  be part of the choir of all beings who see the face of God, however dimly, in this darkness. Let your tiredness lift as you tell it all to Jesus who walked with us and on our behalf in history and walks with us now.

Meditation that leads to connection is good for whatever ails us in this hard time! Sister Mahalia has led us to the altar, now she calls us to worship

And then I’m gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And I’m gonna shout all my trouble over
You know I’ve gotta thank God and thank him for being
So good to me, Lord yeah
How I made it over Lord
I had to cry in the midnight hour coming on over
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

Tell me how I made it over Lord God Lord
Falling and rising all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

We are joining with the huge crowd John sees gathering from the four corner of the earth in the age to come.  From that place, we are looking back on all the trouble that is now over, all that crying in the midnight hour we had to endure. Looking back on what we’ve already gone through creates wonder — if we celebrate how we are alive and don’t fixate on how we’ve been dying. Try it. Maybe you can start a vision history in your “wonder journal.”

The Bible has a lot to say about the “midnight hour.” The first born are killed in Egypt before the slaves are set free at midnight. Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God in prison about midnight before they are miraculously released. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a great sermon about “A  Knock at Midnight.”  Through the vulnerable moments, sleepless, anxious moments, tell me Lord, “How did I make it? How can I believe I will make it right now when I still feel scared and ashamed, and when I am still threatened and scorned? But I do believe. Help me where I don’t.”

Mahalia puts on her new self like she belongs at the coronation.

I’m gonna wear a diadem
In that new Jerusalem
I’m gonna walk the streets of gold
It’s in that homeland of the soul
I’m gonna view the host in white
They’ve been traveling day and night
Coming up from every nation
They’re on their way to the great Coronation

Coming from the north, south, east, and west
They’re on their way to a land of rest
And then they’re gonna join the heavenly choir
You know we’re gonna sing and never get tired
And then we’re gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And then we’re gonna shout all our troubles over
You know we gotta thank God
Thank him for being so good to me

Rest in the “homeland of the soul” might feel hard to grasp, but we know what she is singing about. A little bit of that rest seems fleeting and even paltry, but how odd it is that such a little bit goes such a long way! We can’t forget about it and we long for rest for our souls all day.

I don’t know what I love more, the picture Jackson paints of the age to come, or the picture  I imagine of her in her diadem. Some people hear the lyric as “diamond dress,” which is also great. Everyone has traveled a long way, but here we all are. We are looking good, feeling happy, and dancing down the street in the New Jerusalem [like a NOLA funeral]. If you can’t sing this song, just play it, and let yourself move at least a little during this part. Feel at home in your new self and feel the energy of renewal remaking you. God is good to you. It is a wonder. “Maybe I should strut like the wonder I am!”

Now Mahalia goes into the part that probably made her famous. She started out calmly, but as the song goes on, she can’t help feeling it. She is not just performing it, she is inhabiting it. She is an incarnation and, as such, an invitation to everyone to enter in with all the gifts, services and energies we bring.

You know I come to thank God this evening
I come to thank him this evening
You know all, all night long God kept his angels watching over me
Early this morning, early this morning
God told his angel God said, “Touch her in my name”
God said, “Touch her in my name”

I rose this morning, I rose this morning, I rose this morning
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I just got to thank God, I just got to thank God
I just got to thank God, I just got to thank him
Thank God for being so good, God been good to me

I put this song up in some chat the other day and someone said, “That is a long song!” We’re mainly used to 2 1/2 minute pop songs and jingles. I said, “She can sing it all day and I will sing it with her.” Turning into “I just got to thank God” is a lot better than resenting some fragment from a 70’s song stuck in the crevices of my brain. Turning into thanks, feeling gladness well up, and letting it loose with a shout, a dance, a hug, or some tears is the kind of integration we need to open us up to wonder.

An angel wakes up Zechariah and Elijah in the old Testament. But I think this final picture Mahalia paints is about how we get over. Just like an angel apparently woke Jesus up from his slumber in death, just so will we be awakened on the last day. And as long as we are in the age before death, that is every day. Every day is as good as our last day. Every day of life is gift. We are raised up into it. Relying on an angel to follow orders to “Touch her in my name” is a wonder. I want to live constantly touched by God.

I pray for us all to wake up today touched by Mahalia Jackson who is much like an angel sent to open us to new life. She was a struggling, Black woman who went with her gift in faith and kept turning away from her trauma, and then turned others away from theirs. I hope this meditation helped you turn away from yours and into wonder.