Take my hand
I first heard the world’s most famous gospel song in Macon, Georgia, in 1952 at an all-night singing event; it was sung as solo by the lead singer of one of the quartets. Our group, the SmileA-While Quartet, was also on the program; it was the climax of many weeks of broadcasting two radio programs each day at WMAZ in Macon.
The song I heard that night created a hush over the packed crowd in the Macon City Auditorium and brought tears to many eyes. I was also moved since it was the first time I had heard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’
Later on the quartet discussed using it on one of our programs, and we found a copy which had been printed in shape notes. I noticed it was written by Thomas A. Dorsey. I immediately thought the author of the song was Thomas Dorsey, the American trombonist and world-famous band leader and movie star of the “big band” era of the 1930s and 1940s. But I was wrong. Years passed, and one day in 1967 I met a blind guitar player who was singing on the streets in Decatur. He sang and played that familiar tune, “Precious Lord.” I talked with the guitar man, and he told me he knew the man who wrote the song.
Then I really became interested in the song. I was doing research for the governor of Georgia at that time and was looking for interesting facts about Georgia and Georgians so they could be used in speeches. Now I had something really great to find and share.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, a railroad stop and former gold-rush mining town thirty-eight miles west of Atlanta, on July 1, 1899. He was the oldest of three children born to the Rev. Thomas Madison Dorsey, a graduate of what is now Morehouse College, and Etta Plant Dorsey, an organist. His father was an itinerant preacher.
Young Thomas became interested in music in churches where his father preached, and when the family moved to Atlanta in 1908, Dorsey turned his eyes toward secular music. Taught to play piano by his mother, Dorsey learned the style of the blues musicians who played at Atlanta’s 81 Theater on Decatur Street, where he sold soft drinks as a boy of eleven.
Blues, which had flourished in New Orleans, and ragtime music, which was being played by a number of pianists just after the turn of the century, excited this young, black student.
“If they can, I can,” he said to himself, as he met and talked with band members at the theater. There he met Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, the “Empress of Blues.”
After moving to Chicago with his family around 1910, Dorsey continued to pursue fame and fortune in secular entertainment; he enrolled in the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging and landed a job with Paramount Records, but “The Hound of Heaven,” depicted in Earnest Thompson’s poem, kept pursuing Dorsey, pulling him back to his religious roots like a magnet.
The so-called gospel singing had been a part of American life for many years in plantation spirituals, the white fa sol la, shape note tradition and the singing school movement which was widespread during the religious revivals throughout the Bible-belt before and shortly after the turn of the century, especially among the Pentecostal, Holiness and Baptist churches, but Dorsey created a genuine contemporary gospel trend in Chicago.
What’s more, it was only natural that he gave that music a name.
So he wrote his first religious song, “If I don’t Get There,” and coined the term “gospel music” when it was published in a song book, Gospel Pearls.
Eight years later, in 1929, he and his colleague, Theodore R. Frye, formed a trio, which was the first group in America to call itself gospel singers.
Bythe time Dorsey had come to this unique turningpoint, he had already triumphantly demonstrated his musical talents by composing more than 460 songs for rhythm and blues and jazz performers and recording artists. He had created a style that helped build the careers and recordselling hits for many. One of these was “Ma” Rainey.
Dorsey became known in Chicago and throughout the whole country as Georgia Tom. But in 1930 he renounced the world of secular music, recovered from his sins of omission and commission and became a full-time gospel musician.
In 1932 Dorsey organized the first gospel choir at the 3,000-seat Pilgrim Baptist Church, where he was ordained as a minister and later became assistant pastor. There he secured the services of the young adult Roberta Martin, who would become during the next ten years a shining light throughout America for Dorsey’s musical compositions.
Stepping out of the blues and jazz world was hard for Dorsey; financial rewards in gospel music were not as bountiful as they were in the secular world, and he had to resist the temptation to accept playing jobs with the old crowd. But he did say no, and began composing gospel songs and peddling them on sheet music throughout Chicago.
The world’s most popular gospel song was penned after a double tragedy in Dorsey’s life: on August 26 and 27, 1932, Nettie, his wife, was ready to give birth. Dorsey was in St. Louis to preside at the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
Dorsey received a telegram: “Your wife just died,” He returned to Chicago immediately, but the following evening, his newborn son, Thomas Andrew Jr. died also.
In deep despair, Dorsey locked himself in his music room for several days, and remembering a word of comfort of a friend, he described the Lord as “precious;” then using the melody line of an old hymn, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” he wrote his new song, which later became a million-selling recording for Elvis Presley.
In 1932, Dorsey opened the Dorsey House of Music, the first publishing company for the exclusive sale of gospel music written by black composers. So popular was his music during the 1940s that most all gospel songs were called “Dorseys,” and his influence gave rise to the Southern Gospel that reached its peak in the 1950s.
He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Association’s International Hall of Fame and was the first black to be inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame, and in 1982 the Thomas A. Dorsey Archives was opened at Fisk University in Nashville which also gave him an honorary Doctor of Music. He is also an honored member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon as well as the New York Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Ironically, Thomas A. Dorsey remains relatively obscure figure; his name is not found in “Who’s Who in Black America” or any similar publication— a reason why I am writing this article. He is the undisputed father of gospel music.
Dorsey believed that every work of art was a gift of God. He used it. And until his death in 1993, he was still writing as he said, “For the Lord.”
For him, it was “Precious Lord,” I am sure.