'When I Get to Heaven, I'm Gonna Jump and Shout:' Female Artists and the Life-Changing Song "Oh Happy Day"'

Deborah Smith Pollard to give Luther College Sihler Lecture March 19

Luther College presents its 2019 Sihler Memorial Lecture featuring guest speaker Deborah Smith Pollard, University of Michigan-Dearborn Professor of English Literature and Humanities. Focusing on iconic performances of the gospel music standard "O Happy Day" by female performers, Pollard will give her lecture titled, "When I Get to Heaven, I'm Gonna Jump and Shout:' Female Artists and the Life-Changing Song 'Oh Happy Day.'"  

The lecture, which is part of the commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the Black Student Union at Luther College, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, in the Recital Hall of the Center for Faith and Life on the Luther campus.

In 1968, the Northern California State Choir recorded the album "Let Us Go into the House of the Lord" with plans to sell 500 copies at local churches. However, the cut “O Happy Day,” an arrangement of the 18th century hymn, gained such popularity that it was released internationally in 1969; with sales of over seven million copies, it remains the biggest-selling gospel single in history.

While many know the name of choir director and arranger Edwin Hawkins, few know that several female artists contributed to, built upon or were inspired by the song. This lecture’s focus will be on such significant performers as: the original lead singer, Dorothy Combs Morrison, whose vocal range and quality as well as her lyrical additions were a major part of the song’s success; Tramaine Hawkins, a member of the choir in 1968, who became one of the most iconic gospel singers of the last half century; and Vickie Mack Lataillade who was so captivated by Hawkins’ contemporary gospel sound that she founded Gospo Centric Records and signed such chart-topping artists as Kirk Franklin and Trin-I-Tee 5:7. 

Other women whose careers are connected to this song in some way include folk singer/activist Joan Baez, gospel legend Dorothy Norwood, and international Evangelist Gwendolyn Reid.

The lecture will examine the extent to which these women expanded the popularity of the song "O Happy Day" and challenged the prevailing boundaries regarding who can perform gospel music and where it can be performed, as well as how one should look and sound while doing so.

As a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Pollard teaches in the areas of English, African-American studies and women and gender studies. Besides her courses in English literature and African American culture, she teaches a popular introduction to gospel music course every fall. In 2010, she was awarded the Susan B. Anthony Award by University of Michigan-Dearborn, an honor bestowed on someone who exemplifies Susan B. Anthony's strength, dedication and political agitation on behalf of women.

Pollard received her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University, her master's from Wayne State University and her doctoral degree from Michigan State University.

She has hosted and produced a contemporary gospel music radio program on Sunday mornings for three decades titled "Rhythm and Praise with Deborah Smith Pollard" on MIX 92.3 FM WMXD. In 2006, Pollard won Gospel Announcer of the Year at the Stellar Awards.

Pollard's research is in the areas of African-American identity and literature and African-American sacred music, especially gospel music. In her 2008 book "Contemporary Gospel Music: When the Church Becomes Your Party," she examines the use of gospel music within several of Detroit's churches and in the larger community. She appeared on American Voices: Gospel Master Session with Kim Burrell, hosted at the Kennedy Center.  She has also recently been featured on NPR's World Café podcast episode about Aretha Franklin.

The lecture is sponsored by the Sihler Family Endowment, which funds lectures with an emphasis on women in church music. The event is cosponsored by the Luther Women and Gender Studies Department and the Luther Music Department.

A national liberal arts college with an enrollment of 2,005, Luther offers an academic curriculum that leads to the Bachelor of Arts degree in more than 60 majors and pre-professional programs. For more information about Luther visit the college's website: http://www.luther.edu.

Deborah Smith Pollard