Two Great Musicians: Crosby and Jackson

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 09, 2015

“I sing hymns not because they are old but because they are good.”
Bill Gaither

I grew up singing the old hymns. I loved them then and I still love them today. Just hearing the melodies of some of them instantly transports me to places and times long past. Some keep reminding me of times of great victory and others bring back some of the darkest seasons of my life. 

Actually, I could probably tell you my life story through the messages of those old hymns and where I was and what I was doing when they became permanent fixtures in my soul. 

And when I think of those hymns, two names stand out: Mahalia Jackson for the songs she sang and Fannie Crosby for the songs she wrote. 

Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) was often referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.” Her powerful contralto voice was known all over the world. In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She started touring Europe in 1952 and was hailed by critics as “the world’s greatest gospel singer.” 

Harry Belafonte described her as “The single most powerful black woman in the United States” both for her singing and her civil rights initiatives. 

Her good friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., said of her, “A voice like this one comes not once in a century, but once in a millennium.” She recorded about 30 albums during her career with a dozen “golds” (million sellers).

If you want to be inspired by her incredible gift of music, check out her exquisite rendition of what became her signature song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” on YouTube. 

“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” Jackson once said about her choice of gospel music, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.” 

Frances Jane (Fanny) Crosby (1820–1915) wrote over 8,000 hymns and gospel songs with over 100 million copies printed. She was one of the most prolific hymn writers in history who became known as the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers.” 

Due to a mistreated eye infection, Crosby was blind from the age of six weeks. Regarding her blindness, she said, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.” 

Crosby’s grandmother took on her education and became her eyes. She read to her and nurtured her spirit and encouraged her granddaughter by reading her the Bible. She developed a memory that often amazed her friends. Even at age 8 she wrote, “Oh, what a happy child I am, although I cannot see! I am resolved that in this world contented I will be! How many blessings I enjoy that other people don’t! So weep nor sigh because I’m blind, I cannot – nor I won’t.”

She went on to attend, graduate from and later become a faculty member at the famous New York Institute for the Blind where she taught for 22 years. She was an excellent harpist, played the piano and had a lovely soprano voice. She recited her poetry before the famous including President James K. Polk, Henry Clay and William Cullen Bryant. After one presentation, the applause was so deafening it sounded like thunder and frightened her. 

Some of her best known hymns are “All the Way, My Savior Leads,” “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” “I Am Thine O Lord,” “He Hideth My Soul” and her best known, “Blessed Assurance.” 

You may want to check out the music of these two amazing women. It will indeed feed your soul.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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