Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of gospel music, wrote his most famous hymn — “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the most recorded gospel song in history — in the depths of deep despair and inconsolable grief.
It was August 1932. Dorsey, a blues and jazz musician who had begun writing church music, and his wife Nettie were living in a small apartment on Chicago’s South Side. He was scheduled to be the featured soloist at a large revival in St. Louis. He recalled:
I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.
The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.
People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was ‘Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.’
When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket.
Then I fell apart… lost in grief. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him anymore or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well.
One quiet evening, a friend took Dorsey to a neighborhood music school, and Dorsey sat down at the piano. As his hands began to browse over the keys, a song began to form.
I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody … and words came into my head — they just seemed to fall into place. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on….
Dorsey handed the song to his friend, who introduced it the next Sunday to the choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was pastor. It was an event, Dorsey later remarked, that “tore up the church.”
‘Precious Lord’ Hymn Becomes a Favorite
“Precious Lord” became a favorite of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights leader, who often asked gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to sing it when he preached. It was the last song King asked for the night he was killed.
Jazz saxophonist Ben Branch recalls standing in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when King called out to him to play “Precious Lord” at the rally that night. “Don’t forget. I mean, I want ‘Precious Lord.’ Play it tonight.” Seconds later, an assassin’s bullet changed American history. Five days later, Jackson sang it at King’s funeral.
It’s been sung in small country churches, black and white, and in major concert halls; it’s printed in more than 100 hymnals and in 32 languages. Opera singer Leontyne Price sang “Precious Lord” at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973. The Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts listed it as a Song of the Century.
“Precious Lord” embodies the tenets of gospel music, matching religious text, often from one of the four gospels of the New Testament, with jazz and blues rhythms and melodies. Gospel music is the “good news,” Dorsey said. “It’s evangelistic. It has a rhythm and carries a message with the feeling and fever that many sacred songs do not have.”
Dorsey was born July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, the oldest son of Thomas Madison Dorsey, a sharecropper and itinerant Baptist pastor, and Etta Plant Spencer, a church musician. When Dorsey was eight, the family moved to Atlanta to seek better opportunities.
Dorsey struggled in school and eventually dropped out when he was 12, going to work in local theatres, selling concessions, and learning from blues musicians. He practiced long hours at home and studied with a music teacher near Morehouse College, learning how to read music and master several instruments.
Seeking a bigger music career, Dorsey moved to Chicago in 1916 when he was 17. “I had hope, faith, courage, aspiration and most of all determination to accomplish something in life….I resolved to make a mark for myself.”
He enrolled in the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging while supporting himself by working in steel mills in Gary. He learned jazz and played with blues and jazz groups, wrote music, and became a music arranger for Paramount Records and the Chicago Music Publishing Company. Music critic Stephen Calt said Dorsey “ranked as the most self-conscious, serious, and accomplished blues lyricists of his time.”
In 1922, Dorsey married his sweetheart Nettie Harper and the following year “Georgia Tom” became the pianist and leader of the Wild Cats Jazz Band, accompanying Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers, on tour, with Nettie as her wardrobe mistress.
Two years later, in 1925, Dorsey suffered a nervous breakdown; after seeking help from doctors, Dorsey experienced a supernatural religious healing and devoted himself to writing gospel music.
While earlier songs, such as the hymns of Rev. Charles Tindley, began to explore pairing the feeling of black spirituals with gospel messages, Dorsey developed the style. Gospel songs featured syncopated notes in an eight-bar blues structure; but instead of themes of defiance in the face of despair, the theme most common in the blues, this new music told stories of hope and affirmation. His first gospel song, “If You See My Savior Tell Him That You Saw Me” was published in 1932.
Gaining Acceptance of New Music
But Dorsey persevered, traveling to churches with sheet music and soloist Jackson to share his hymns. The music caught on among black congregations, dealing with the crushing despair of the Depression; Dorsey viewed his songwriting as an important ministry. He believed his songs “lifted people out of the muck and mire of poverty and gave them … hope.”
Of his 1,000 musical works, at least 200 were gospel songs. He promoted the gospel song through the formation of the National Association of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1933, teamed with Jackson to introduce his songs to churches around the country, and began the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Song Music Publishing Company, a publisher of inexpensive gospel blues music.
Dorsey’s music changed traditional church worship in the black church, and its influence was felt worldwide, reaching audiences of all races and nationalities. “Gospel is good music sent down from the Lord to save the people… There is no such thing as black music, white music, red or blue music… It’s what everybody needs,” he said.
Illustrating its universal appeal, Dorsey’s gospel song “Peace in the Valley,” written in 1939, was a hit for country-western star Red Foley and the Sunshine Boys, one of the first gospel recordings to sell 1 million copies.
The song achieved mass coverage during Elvis Presley’s third and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957. Before an audience estimated at 54.6 million viewers, Presley closed the show by dedicating the song to the 200,000 refugees fleeing Hungary after the October 1956 invasion by the Soviet Union. His appeal brought in $6 million for the refugees.
Dorsey’s music, which still resonates today, was the “language of his soul,” written with a fearless faith in God’s power and providence, most clearly seen in the pathos and peace he experienced the night he wrote “Precious Lord.”
“As the Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit,” wrote Dorsey, who died in 1993. “I 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.”