Arago: Exhibits

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From Gospel to Secular

Once America had an established gospel music tradition, new generations of gospel artists attempted to make this musical tradition more accessible to the general public. Some artists popularized gospel music by increasing their involvement in humanitarian activities outside the church, while others added more secular themes to their songs. Two artists that greatly contributed to expanding the audience for gospel music in America were Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward.

Mahalia Jackson’s (1911-1972) early life consisted of many trials and tribulations. Her mother died when she was still a child, and as a result of economic difficulties within her family, Jackson did not even complete her elementary school education. Despite these hardships, Jackson grew up to have a very successful career in the music industry. A large part of her success came from the fact that she combined jazz and blues sounds with more traditional gospel music in order to achieve a sound that appealed to more secular audiences. In addition to her music career, Jackson was also very involved in humanitarian work and the civil rights movement, which gave her the opportunity to sing before Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech.” In 1972 Mahalia Jackson won a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy to honor her contributions to American music.

Clara Ward (1924-1973) began her musical career by singing with her mother, Gertrude Murphy Ward, and her sister, Willarene. The family musical group referred to themselves as the Ward Singers and started out performing in churches throughout the 1940’s. Although they started out as a traditional gospel group, the Ward Singers changed their name to the Clara Ward Singers in the 1950’s and began to appeal to a more secular audience. The group began to play at more popular music venues and also started to wear brightly colored and flashy costumes. This transition to a more popular form of music made the Clara Ward Singers one of the most influential gospel groups of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward stamps were designed by Howard Paine for the American Music Series: Gospel issue. The ceremony was held at the New Orleans Superdome during the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship Conference. Each stamp features a photograph depicting the gospel artist.

32c Mahalia Jackson single

The Mahalia Jackson stamp was issued July 15, 1998.

32c Clara Ward single

The Clara Ward stamp was issued July 15, 1998.