If Mahalia Jackson was the Queen of Gospel, she was also the Empress of Melisma. She dominated the vocal technique described as "an ornamental phrase of several notes sung to one syllable of text." From the very first "ove-er" to the climbing crescendos later in the song, Jackson exercises this notable skill with a smooth confidence that is rare in singers in any genre.
Typical live versions of "How I Got Over" feature simple piano accompaniment, Jackson's preferred backup. For many years, she refused to perform with any backup except for her signature combination of a piano and an organ, an idea she came up with on her own because she felt it suited her voice. Later in her career, as commercial success led to increased pressure to do television appearances and polished recordings, she occasionally performed with an orchestra. The Columbia Records studio version of "How I Got Over," included on Mahalia Jackson's Greatest Hits, features a piano, an organ, drums, and a backing choir, giving it a thicker sound and a more cheerful feel.
Although the sound quality on these studio recordings tends to be better than live recordings, live performance was Jackson's passion. She apparently had a way of grabbing the audience with her captivating voice and open, loving stage presence. She could also bring audiences to tears, and sometimes cried during her own performances (most notably when she went on CBS to sing after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy). She disliked TV because producers gave her time limits on her songs—she liked to take as long as she needed for a song. In general, Jackson was fully dedicated to gospel in sound, style and approach, preferring above all to sing in churches for others who shared her religious devotion.