Born on New Orleans’ Algiers Point, Cynthia Girtley is a singer and pianist whose music has carried her across the US and Europe. She has served as music director for churches in Washington. Her repertoire ranges from opera to contemporary and traditional gospel. But her first love remains the songbook of Mahalia Jackson. Nick Spitzer asked Cynthia about her path in gospel.
Cynthia Girtley: In the Baptist church you were not allowed to sing in the choir or do anything until you accepted the lord Jesus Christ. I was very anxious to do that because I wanted to sing in the choir of course, and I wanted to sing Mahalia’s songs. It just made me feel good and my mother was pleased that I was learning so quickly. I got baptized at four, and I got in the choir and became the lead soloist in the choir at four years old. Unbelievable!
CG: And I think it was the addition of playing the piano that just gave me even more feeling that this God that we’re singing about it seems as though I could feel him in the keys, even while I was playing the piano. So I started private lessons at the age of seven and started playing for the very first church at the age of ten. From that, people would hear me, and they would ask, “Can you come sing at my church?” And I started moving all over the city singing. I couldn’t drive, my father would drive me everywhere, and I think every Sunday I had two or three churches that I was singing at, on the West Bank and the East Bank. I believe it was the spirit and the feeling that I had when I sang those songs of Mahalia’s. It wasn’t a chore for me to go to church; I would look forward to going and singing.
NS: When you perform Mahalia, how do you prepare to do her repertoire?
CG: Whenever I perform, whether it’s at a church doing a dedication for Mahalia or a tribute or Jazz Fest or whatever, the first thing I do is I visit her grave. She is buried here in New Orleans. And I have a little talk with her. I sit down for about a half hour, and I may bring me a tea or a water, and I just feel like she’s just talking to me back with me, I feel great! And a lot of people may think I’m crazy, but I’m telling you, I just felt like part of her left with me when I left the grave. I just felt there was a little grasshopper on my window.
CG: My thing is the traditional gospel. It’s the foundation. Contemporary gospel will come and go, but “Amazing Grace,” “Jesus Lover of My Soul,” these traditional songs that hit the soul resonate right there in that spirit, that when you sing it, you can’t help but cry.
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