Monday, September 12, 2011

Cultural Antecedents of “Come Sunday”, as recorded by Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington (1958)

Cultural Antecedents of “Come Sunday”, as recorded by

Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington (1958)

The music recording industry in the U.S. relies upon image, illusion, socio-cultural dynamics and, within those contexts, marketable musical talent, to sell its products. Prior to recording Come Sunday together, on the record album Black, Brown, and Beige (BBB. Columbia: CS-8015, 1958, re-issued on CD CK65566, 1999), the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, and America’s leading jazz composer/band leader, Duke Ellington, each enjoyed fully-established public “images”: generally accepted and media-influenced public perceptions of their respective artistry, personalities and personal characters. Ms. Jackson’s “image” and career had been developed through a long, firmly-established (if opinionated) African-American church-affiliated audience. Mr. Ellington’s “image” and success, with generally-perceived roots in night club/gangster-dominated “secular” show- business, were outgrowths from a very different, “un-churched” (and more cross-cultural) audience. Each artist enjoyed international stature at the time of this 1958 recording. Their “two audiences”, within their African-American fan-base, together form a unique social component in the cultural history of America.

These apparently separate, distinct African American “audiences” are, in reality, one audience. It is not two separate, mutually-opposed groups; the former, staunchly “Christian”, insisting that all African-American music that is not church-based is unequivocally generated by the “devil’s” devices (night clubs, “low-life”, etc); the latter, secular and “worldly” ( having no apparent adherence to church “values”) in its denunciation of the church’s sometimes-perceived irrelevance and hypocrisy.

Each of these “audiences” has a focus on the other through their respective-but-common roots in American slavery. ( In the original extended version of this paper, I attempted to trace, from Colonial America, cultural antecedents and “image”- related precedents to this Come Sunday collaboration between Ms. Jackson and Mr. Ellington. * )

The social relevance of this, Mr. Ellington’s first published religious song (Come Sunday) is significant because of its structural similarity to Negro Spirituals and to American/colonial transplants of Scottish music, and because of its new 1958 lyrics (The song originated, without lyrics, from the full-length version on Mr. Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige”, recorded at Carnegie Hall, 23 January 1943).

Recorded while the nation was still impacted both by the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till (and the acquittal of his later-confessed murderers) and while we were entering the civil rights movement in earnest, Ms. Jackson”s passionate interpretation of “Come Sunday”, especially through the song’s central lyric, helps to re-focus and resolve traditional mutual enmity between her audience and Mr. Ellington’s: “ . . . please look down and see my people through”.

Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, provided an initial glimpse into the Jackson-Ellington relationship when he outlined his father’s strong feelings “ . . . about anything that touched on religion . . . . Knowing his feeling about sacred music, Mahalia Jackson came to him once, suggesting that he be the one to produce her on records. This he couldn’t do, because he thought it wrong to profit from anything concerned with the church, which is why she always had a great regard for him. She herself felt religion had no place in certain areas and refused all kinds of money to appear in Las Vegas. She would never even visit sin city”. Pop was a bit different, but he wouldn’t let anyone project him as a kind of Messiah. He never was a hypocrite. There were things he did that in a sense were not pure—and some he intended to continue doing—so he refused to be held up as a moral example of how a man should behave.” 1

Duke’s sister, Ruth, writes, “ . . . after many years of observation, I concluded that the mystique of Edward Kennedy Ellington was, in fact, based upon the philosophy of life in which he profoundly believed, namely Christianity. ” She attributes “. . . the way in which he truly honored and loved his parents . . .”, his “. . . calm equilibrium in the face of every-day hassles of frantic show biz life. . . . “, his “. . . empathy and understanding for the problems of others . . .” and “…his warm love for human beings generally . . . ” 2 all to this religious faith and conviction.

Components of Duke’s reputation persisted from the early 20th-century “jazz age” and prohibition era through the 1992 construction of the controversial, distinguished-looking sculptured statue of the Duke, standing at a grand piano in a tuxedo at the north east corner of New York’s Central Park, propped up by half-naked women.

If Duke held strong Christian beliefs (which traditionally eschew mingling with the likes of gangsters and their ilk), then how is his reputation as a womanizer reconciled with Ruth’s and Mercer’s assertions of those beliefs? Why would Mahalia Jackson want him to produce her music? She was at the pinnacle of the gospel-music industry.

Changing social-cultural dynamics have caused shifts in the definition and application of what is “holy” in African American religious music. Ms. Jackson had experienced such a shift from her constituent church: She and her musical mentor, Thomas A. Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music” (formerly a blues pianist / song writer, musical director for blues shouter Ma Rainey, and pianist in a “speakeasy” controlled by Al Capone), were reviled by church leaders in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s for bringing the “devil” into the church by infusing the blues into the sacred music of the church. Those blues inflections formed the very foundation of African American gospel music from that time until today.

Ms. Jackson knew, therefore, that discernment was necessary in deciding to ask Duke to produce her music and in accepting his invitation to record Come Sunday. His image was set: He was not on “God’s side”, according to many highly-biased church-going gospel music enthusiasts.

Irving Townsend, producer of the 1958 album (BBB) states, “ . . . The decision to include Mahalia Jackson in “Black, Brown and Beige” [“Come Sunday”] was made two years before the actual event took place in Columbia’s Hollywood studios . . . awed and inspired by her voice and convictions, he [Ellington] hesitated over this collaboration . . .” In the liner notes of the CD re-issue ( 1999, produced by Phil Schaap), the Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor John Sanders, a former trombonist in Duke’s orchestra, remembers, regarding Ms. Jackson recording with Duke “ . . . I only knew that she had some misgivings, but Duke set her at ease and assured her that to do something like this would not take her out of character . . .”. She decided to record, nevertheless. He was still seven years away from presenting his First Sacred Concert (San Francisco, 1965).

We consider Duke’s public image with illusory bias if we do not see a composite whole in the two apparently-contradictory elements reflected in that image. Seen chronologically, he played the hand he was dealt at the outset of his career, performing in the clubs of New York. At the end of his career, he presented his last (Third) “Sacred Concert “ at Westminster Abbey, London, (1973), affirming (from the “First Sacred Concert”, 1965) that, “Now, I can say in public what I have been saying on my knees all of my life”. . . . He passed away in 1974.


* The original paper (‘07) and forth-coming memoir, from which this writing is excerpted, explore the general public perception, from the 19th century to the present, of musical-cultural antecedents of “Come Sunday”. It references historical developments and attitudes toward the “sacred” and “secular” in the African American religious-music experience, from American Colonial life through the 20th century.

The following invaluable anecdotal experiences have informed my research: My own 40-year career and cross-cultural experiences as a church-music leader in fourteen religious denominations, where I often received an earful regarding what’s “holy” and “unholy” in American Christian music; my brief but significant experiences as a synagogue music-leader in High-Holy-Day musical-service and leadership; my indelible personal / musical experiences with Duke Ellington, his orchestra (his “team”, as he told me, in 1973, after inviting me to compose and conduct music for his orchestra at a concert at Disneyland, then bringing me into his orchestra and appointing me as his composing and conducting assistant), and his family, including conducting and / or producing his Sacred Music in thirteen concerts, nationally, for his sister, Ruth (since 1984), and creating the full-length, concerto-grosso orchestration of his magnum opus, Black, Brown and Beige, at the invitation of his son, Mercer (commissioned by G. Schirmer, Inc.).


1. Dance, Stanley, and Ellington, Mercer. “ Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir”.

Boston, 1978. page 184.

2. Ellington, Ruth ed. Sacred Concerts Complete Duke Ellington Inspirational Music.

Miami Beach, Florida, (no date given). page 82. ( “The Blue Book” )

© 2010, by R.K. Horton


  1. Thank you very much for such an insightful article.

  2. Thanks, indeed. I'm in a "Come Sunday" state of mind.