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'His Eye Is On the Sparrow'

American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing at the Imperial Palace at Tokyo.
Getty Images
American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing at the Imperial Palace at Tokyo.

In the summer of 1958, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson put her signature on one of the most beloved American hymns, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." In July, she performed it before an ecstatic audience at the Newport Jazz Festival. A month later, she made a studio recording of the song.

"His Eye Is On the Sparrow" has a simple melody, no exaggerated crescendos or theatrical flourishes. It's a song that relies completely on the clarity of its verses and the dignity of the performer.

"It opens with a rhetorical question," says ethnomusicologist Irene Jackson Brown.

"Why should I feel discouraged? Why should I feel in pain? Why should I feel lonely when clouds arise, when I have trouble and when I long for heaven and home? Now these are metaphors for safety and comfort, and the question is answered quietly and with economy of text. You know his eye is on the little old sparrow, and I know he cares for you and me."

"His Eye Is On the Sparrow," a song closely associated with the African-American experience, was written by two whites: composer Charles Hutchison Gabriel and lyricist Silvila Durfy Martin. Not much is known about Martin. She was born in Nova Scotia in 1866 and lived most of her life in Atlanta. Apparently, she was inspired to write "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" after visiting a sick friend. She mailed the lyrics to Gabriel, who worked for a gospel music publisher in Chicago. Before "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" reached Mahalia Jackson, it found a voice in actress and singer Ethel Waters.

In the 1950s, Waters appeared in several films intended for a mainstream audience, making her one of the few black performers to have crossover appeal. In 1953, she played a cook in the movie a "Member of the Wedding." In a scene stealing performance, Waters sang "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."

Ethel Waters was among the singers Mahalia Jackson admired. And songs like "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," with its message that God looks after even the smallest of creatures, must have spoken to her. Jackson's early life was hard. She was born in New Orleans in 1911, orphaned at age five, migrated to Chicago at 16, scrubbed floors and cooked for a living. Studs Terkel had the opportunity to speak to Mahalia Jackson, and wanted to find out how far back does her memory goes; when and where did she first hear gospel music.

"Well, in the church," Ms. Jackson responded. "In a little church down in Louisiana, down in New Orleans. I used to sing gospel songs there. And an old man on the river front used to teach me songs. And that's how I started to singing gospel songs as spirituals and folk songs."

In 1954, Mahalia Jackson and her long-time accompanist Mildred Falls hosted a nationally syndicated radio show with Mr. Terkel. They called it "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."

"No one sang it like Mahalia," Mr. Terkel remembers. "And we needed a theme song. And at the time, she and Mildred hadn't decided which song to use as the theme. For the first couple of weeks, I think they had "Move On Up A Little Higher." I forget which it was. But it wasn't right. And finally she decided, 'His Eye Is On the Sparrow'. Of course, when you hear Mahalia sing that number--you know, I was about to say, this is our song. It's everybody's song as Mahalia sings it. And there's no need to tell you about Mahalia's mastery of the spiritual."

By the late 1950s, Mahalia Jackson was well established as the gospel queen. Her record "Move On Up A Little Higher" had sold more than a million copies. She became the first official soloist of the National Baptist Convention and performed on stages throughout the world. With Mahalia Jackson, every moan counted, every breath, every pause, every phrase.

In 1956, Jackson became one of the first gospel singers to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival. Festival producer George Wein:

"It was, you know, a predominantly white audience that got to appreciate her in a way she'd never been appreciated, 'cause she literally had a voice of an angel."

In 1958, at Mahalia Jackson's request, the Newport Jazz Festival devoted an entire evening to gospel music. Under a midnight sky, Jackson's clear contralto moved an audience of music lovers to forget jazz that night and cleave to the power and spirit of gospel.

"And I remember also that evening," Mr. Wein says, "she did a song I think "Didn't It Rain Children?" and it just started to rain when she started to sing that song. It was unearthly. It was just beautiful."

Jackson did three encores that night: "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho," "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," and for her final number "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."

Mahalia Jackson reached millions of people with her singing in concert performances and in radio and television appearances. She sang for dignitaries, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Jackson was sassy and outspoken. She wasn't afraid to use her status as a gospel star to speak out on civil rights. In 1963, she told Studs Terkel that just as her faith helped her get through life, she believed it could help others.

"When our savior came, now he didn't come down here just to tell people to believe on him," Ms. Jackson said on her show. "He said--he healed the sick and he healed the blind, he raised the dead. He did things for people. So salvation and the Word of God can do things for you. It can open doors for you. And I know it can, Studs. Look what it done for me. And my people have--we're coming along, but my God, we've come along so slow till we chokin'."

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said Mahalia had a voice that came once in a millennium. She didn't just sing the song. It was her story. "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" has been recorded by such contemporary artists as Deniece Williams, Lauryn Hill, and Kirk Franklin. But most critics agree that this song, a song that's known to bring an entire congregation to its knees, belongs to Mahalia Jackson.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Williams