Funteller Thomas Jackson Brings Gospel Singing Home: A Voice of Promise
When Funteller Thomas Jackson FP’94 was a child in Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s, the thing she wanted most in the world was to sing like Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel.” And she had the pipes to make that wish seem realistic.
Even as a youngster singing in the church choir, Funteller Thomas had a voice to be reckoned with, and her grandfather recognized it—”saw my gift,” as she recalls. He enrolled her in singing lessons, which cost $12 a week—a steep price to pay for a man with few resources. But he looked to the future, and what he saw pleased him.
“His plan was that I would be greater than Mahalia,” Jackson told members of Professor of Religion John Grayson’s Spirituals and the Blues class last fall. And he figured that with the fortune her fame delivered, Jackson could support him in his old age.
It was a good plan, but life—or God, as Jackson would have it—had something else in mind for both of them. Jackson’s beloved granddaddy died soon after her fourth singing lesson—her last, as it turned out—and she never did become more famous than Mahalia.
But listening to Jackson—a recently ordained Baptist minister, who is now associate minister and choir director of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania—sing her favorite gospel songs, it’s easy to understand her grandfather’s early optimism. Powerful and stirring, hers is a voice of hope and promise.
Presence of the spirit
A counterpoint to the strict rules and format of worship services throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gospel was a way to “infuse black religion with soul,” Grayson told his class, which gathered for Jackson’s performance at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in South Hadley.
Thomas Dorsey (not the big-band leader) is credited with being the father of gospel music, which combines Christian praise with the rhythms that were flourishing in blues joints and jazz clubs in the 1920s and ’30s.
“Gospel embraces a belief that the spirit will not ascend without a song,” noted Grayson. “It demands that we all respond to the presence of the spirit.”
As if on cue, Funteller Jackson’s voice then rose from the back of the sanctuary with the passion of someone to whom the song’s title, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” spoke deeply and personally.
Born to a family with strong Christian faith, Jackson was the eldest of five children. Her dad, a janitor, died when she was fourteen. Her grandfather and uncle, with whom her family had lived, died not long afterward in an automobile accident that also badly injured her mother and aunt.
Acquaintance rape and divorce later in her life pushed Jackson to despair, but it was the news of her youngest son’s death in the airplane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 that ripped her life apart. It takes nothing short of a miracle to recover from the violent death of one’s own child, and Jackson credits gospel music for leading her, if not to wholeness, then to hope.
“It’s been a long journey,” Jackson told her audience in South Hadley. “I am here today after living a life of pain and suffering. In the midst of it all, I still found joy. Through it all, my faith, the word of God, and gospel music have kept me going.”
Freedom in song
At the outset of a ninety-minute performance that combined gospel singing and lecture, Jackson encouraged the students and old friends in the sanctuary—including its rector Tanya Wallace ’94, a friend and classmate of Jackson’s; accompanist, friend, and former MHC dean of the sophomore class Ruth Bass Green; and Professor of Religion Jane Crosthwaite—to say “Amen” and “Praise the Lord” and “Thank you, Jesus” as her fellow African-American parishioners would in response to the music.
She hastened to add that no one should say anything they found uncomfortable. But it was hard to find anyone in the sanctuary who didn’t at least murmur, if not whoop or even weep with support and appreciation for the joyful performance of this deeply motivated and moving singer. “I feel like when she sings I hear her soul,” said Wallace.
Christine Kobyljanec ’11 was particularly taken with the art of gospel song and the personal style that Jackson brought to the music. She noted, “I like the freedom and fluidity of gospel songs; they’re very improvisational and natural.”
In fact, Jackson noted, gospel’s rhythm is always personalized by the singer’s speech, walk, and laughter. “One of the important pieces in singing gospel is where you are in life on the day you’re singing,” she said.
To the hoots and hollers of students in the pews, Jackson then sang “Amazing Grace” her own way, and then again with the special twist that Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” might afford it. “You see the difference?” she asked the excited crowd. Oh yeah, they murmured with delight.
Jackson was forty-five when she arrived at MHC as a Frances Perkins scholar and was “scared to death.” She had worked in municipal government in Detroit for more than ten years, had not been to school since she was eighteen, and—as many nontraditional students do—felt deeply inadequate intellectually. She shared her feelings with Grayson, who suggested that his class Spirituals and the Blues, with its familiar themes, might help boost her confidence.
While it was tough at MHC to be an African-American woman who had never had much contact with whites, Jackson told students the good news was that she experienced being black in a different way. “There were things about my history that it took coming to MHC to find out,” she explained. “I found Caucasian friends—they liked me and I liked them. I was the first FP scholar to be the baccalaureate speaker,” she added.
That speech cinched Tanya Wallace’s understanding of Jackson’s magnetism and leadership abilities. “She’s not just a person with a voice, but someone who radiates what we aspire to,” said Wallace.
Jackson and her husband, Jackie Jackson, joined hands. Together, they sang “Highway to Heaven,” arm in arm, full of spirit, voices filled with hope and promise.
—By Mieke H. Bomann
This article appeared in the spring 2011 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
Experience Funteller Jackson’s singing, and learn more about gospel music, at alumnae.mtholyoke.edu/funteller.
March 28, 2012