Monday, July 5, 2021

Astonishing Duet --- Day 10/64

Walk:  Fillmore Street Holiday lunch

Distance: 2.5 miles

Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson at 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival

Maybe half way into Summer of Soul, a documentary of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson are standing on the west facing stage along side a very young, hip and handsome Jesse Jackson.  Mahalia leans toward Mavis (who idolizes Jackson) and says something like "I'm not feeling very well.  Can you help me out with this song?"

And you think, "omg, are those two going to sing together?" - Or Ciwt did anyway.  

But, no, the music begins and Staples steps forward and begins belting out a stirring version of M.L. King's (who had been assassinated the year before) favorite hymn, Take My Hand, Precious Lord.  Oh well, no duet, but Mavis Staples is just nailing it; can't imagine anything better.

Or yes you can because Mahalia steps forward, takes the mic from Mavis and omg!  Who hasn't at some point had an lp, tape, cd or just heard Mahalia Jackson sing?  However you are hearing her, you are moved to a higher dimension.

As if that isn't enough, Staples comes over and those two glorious voices start sharing the mic.  Just the fact that it is happening is stunning enough, but to actually hear and see this perfomance is beyond words.  All Ciwt could think to do was grab her iphone and take a picture from her movie seat.  

Later she saw that NYT arts reviewer, Wesley Morris, actually did find the words:  

Then together — Jackson refulgent in a fuchsia gown with a gold diamond emblazoned below her bosom; Staples in something short, lacy, belted and white — they embark on the single most astounding duet I’ve ever heard, seen or felt. They share the microphone. They pass it between them. Howling, moaning, wailing, hopping, but well within the song’s generous contours and, somehow, in control of themselves...

I don’t remember how long this performance lasts. It doesn’t really even have an ending, per se. It just simply concludes, with each woman heading back to Reverend Jackson, into the band. But when it’s over you don’t know what to do — well, besides never forget it. It’s an extraordinary event not just of musical history. It’s a mind-blowing moment of American history. And for five decades, the footage of it apparently just sat in a basement, waiting for someone like Thompson to give it its due.

(Wesley Morris, NYT, June 24)

Artists before and after Jackson and Staples include Stevie wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Sly & The Family Stone, The 5th Dimension and so many more.  The festival drew an audience of 300,000.  The film is remarkable.

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