Take my hand

The Covington News - - SCHOOL BEAT -

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.

Clifford Brew­ton


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