Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, as shown in Summer of Soul. Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

Summer of Soul, directed by Questlove, is a stunning tribute to the almost–forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and to the Black community of New York City. But the festival didn’t just feature musicians from New York; it drew on performers from across the country and beyond. San Francisco is represented by psychedelic soul pioneers Sly and the Family Stone. Motown artists like Gladys Knight and the Pips and Stevie Wonder represent Detroit. And Mahalia Jackson, Jesse Jackson, and the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir take the stage for Chicago.

Mahalia Jackson’s big records were released in the 1940s and 50s; by 1969 she was an institution. Specifically, she was an institution closely associated with the civil rights movement, which had embraced gospel music as a spiritual call for this-world equality. 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song was Chicago gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord,” written after Dorsey’s wife and child died. Mahalia often sang it at King’s civil rights rallies. There she was sometimes backed by the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, under the musical direction of saxophonist Ben Branch. Branch was the last person King spoke to before he was shot; he asked him to play “Precious Lord.” Mahalia Jackson sang the song at King’s funeral in April 1968, a little more than a year before the Harlem Festival was held.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, head of the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, was standing by Branch and King at the moment of the assassination as well. He was onstage at the festival to give an inspirational address and drum up support for Operation Breadbasket’s work organizing boycotts of businesses that wouldn’t hire Black employees or contractors. Jackson describes King’s last moments twice, once onstage and once years later in an interview with Questlove. In the film, the twinned accounts are intercut with archival footage of King’s work and of his death as the band plays the intro to “Precious Lord.” The sequence is almost unendurably sad.

The song isn’t just about sadness, though. Jesse Jackson frames King’s work not as an end, but as an inspiration for the ongoing work of liberation. He compares King to Moses who didn’t get to see the Promised Land. “He didn’t die crying or die afraid. He died asking the Lord to lend his hand to help him to lead us.”

Mahalia Jackson also finds joy in the performance. She asked singer Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers to help her put the song across (“Baby, Mahalia don’t feel too good today; I need you to help me sing this song”). The two of them treat Dorsey’s famous composition as an exercise in showstopping virtuosity. 

Staples has one of the all-time great voices in any genre ever, and the camera pans to people in the audience laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief as she roars “Precious Lord, take my hand!” ad libbing “Oh yeahs!” and “Yes I ams!,” putting a “Hah!” at the end of each line. She literally hops up and down on stage as if the power of her own singing is blasting her off the Earth.

Mahalia is somehow even more stunning. She sings each line with enough vibrato to shake the Earth like an operatic seismic wave. For the climax she and Staples call and respond on the same microphone. “Hold me! Hold me!” they shout back and forth, leaning in close enough to hold each other. “Man, I tell you,” Mavis says to the interviewer, looking back, “that was the time of my life.” 

She and everyone else on stage, and in the audience, do look like they couldn’t be happier as they sing a song remembering an incredibly traumatic and horrible death. It’s not the death they’re celebrating, of course, but the life, and their own lives and genius. When the world, or the country, wants you dead and forgotten, making unforgettable living music is a kind of defiance. Every performer in Summer of Soul knows that. But no one puts it over with more force than Chicago’s Mahalia. 

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