L-e-a-d me on, Let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am w-o-r-n
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, l-e-a-d me h-o-m-e… (Thomas A. Dorsey)
As with many of us, those lyrics began placing a song in my heart when the Civil Rights Movement was in its heyday, even before those turbulent school integration years, back home in Kentucky. From first hearing black gospel choirs mimicking Mahalia Jackson’s soul-stirring version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” to hearing my citified, Southern-Baptist-Deaconess mother, and my countrified, Pentecostal-Evangelist grandmother, humming their distinctly different versions, the melody has been clinging inside my head, like hot grits on the palate: too fiery-hot to swallow, too doggone good to get rid of!
Yet, I used to get fighting mad when many times hearing that the song was written by the great white American band leader and jazz trombonist, “Tommy Dorsey.” His given name was Thomas Francis Dorsey (11/19/1905 – 11/26/1956). But, black teachers schooled us early on whom first penned the lyrics to this song. Later, when I was stationed in the Mediterranean, I kept hearing that Elvis Presley first wrote and sang the song. And, the frustration once led to fisticuffs, mostly cursing and shoving, with a white sailor. He was also one of the loud-mouth swabbies that were whispering to French barmaids that black Americans had tails “…like those that swing from monkey butts!” I never knew where he was from. But, the brothers called him “Alabama.” With racial tensions the way they were, the shoving match probably didn’t change any minds. Yet, while I’ve long passed the silly age of settling differences with fists and filthy language, I still feel the urge from time to time to set the record straight.
The actual composer of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is Thomas Andrew Dorsey (a.k.a., “Tommy Dorsey,” 07/01/1899-01/23/1993), an African-American. When I was a child, I also learned that he was known as the “Father of Gospel Music.” Archives reveal that he was born about 30 miles west of Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a preacher (Rev. Thomas M. Dorsey), whose income came mostly from farming. He seemed heavily influenced by his mother (Etta Plant Spencer), who often sang the lead, during hymns and spirituals, in their church choir. His mother’s brother (Phil Plant) played the blues guitar. Religious music filled their home and fueled their meager existence. These combined exposures later helped steer the younger Dorsey to playing in church, as well as vaudeville blues in nightclubs and houses of prostitution. By age 12, he became a professional pianist and was associated with, and influenced by, some prominent black musicians, including Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, W.C. Handy, Sallie Martin and Willie Mae Ford Smith. His compositions later beefed up the repertoires of gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Sister Rosetta Thorpe, as well as song listings for white musicians– including Elvis Presley and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Reflecting on his music, he once reminded others, “I don’t write songs for Black men, or White men, or Red men, or Yellow men, or Brown men. I write songs for people, and I want all men to sing these gospel songs.”
According to various accountings, while still a blues artist, Dorsey once performed at the National Baptist Convention, in 1930, often standing while playing the keyboard, moaning, groaning and rocking to the gospel music’s bluesy beat. Two years later, he took these stylistic rhythm blends with him, when he accepted an invitation to become choir director of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church. He stayed there for the next 40 years, influencing “gospel blues” compositions all over South-Side Chicago, while evangelizing through gospel music at Chicago’s WLFL radio station. Between 1939 and 1944, he toured with Mahalia Jackson. This black maestro has well over 1,000 songs to his credit, combining blues with traditional black religious music. In addition to his most famous work, “…Precious Lord,” they include: “If You See My Savior,” “Peace in the Valley,” “How Can You Have the Blues?,” “Muddy Water Blues,” “Riverside Blues” and many others.
However, it was “…Precious Lord” that Dorsey said he “…learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.” Documentation shows that he wrote this song, after his wife of seven years (Nettie Harper) died, in 1932, while he was away, in St. Louis, singing at a revival. She was in her ninth month of pregnancy and had just given birth to a baby boy. Before the night was over, the baby had died, as well.
Dorsey died of Alzheimer’s disease, in Chicago, Illinois, 10 years after the Pilgrim Baptist Church’s “ T.A. Dorsey Choir” was created in his honor. Beyond the black community, Dorsey wasn’t well-known until a 1976 British Broadcasting documentary, “Say Amen, Somebody,” reviewed his earlier blues career (You can view additional profiles: http://new.music.yahoo.com/thomas-a-dorsey/). But, in the book, “The Rise of Gospel Blues…” (Harris, M.W., Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), Dorsey is quoted, “If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues; he feels like expressing it. The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing the blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.” Frankly, I don’t believe “Alabama” and I understood any of this while we were cursing and shoving each other.
How about you? What is “gospel music” to you? How about “…Precious Lord”? Did you know its true beginnings? What, if any, is the distinction between so-called “White Gospel” and “Black Gospel” music?
(“Backstreet Djeli”) w.d.s.