Before Us Among Us: Thomas Dorsey

As part of our efforts to celebrate Black genius, New Profit has asked Dr. Gayle Pemberton, a leading scholar on African America literature and history, to help us highlight Black artists who have shaped American history and culture in the deepest and most profound ways. Their words, notes, brush strokes, and images can give us all hope and inspiration for coming out of this period of trauma a better nation. In this blog feature, Dr. Gayle Pemberton introduces the musical genius of Thomas Dorsey.

March 18, 2022

The journey that led Thomas Dorsey to write “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”* and hundreds of other gospel and blues songs, was filled with twists, turns, great triumph and agonizing tragedy. Dorsey was born in 1899 in the small rural town of Villa Roca, Georgia. His life revolved around the church, where his father preached (he was also a farmer) and his mother played the organ. The first major turn in his life was when the family moved to Atlanta when Dorsey was eight years old. Life changed for the entire family in Atlanta; his father became a laborer, his mother a servant. At twelve, Dorsey dropped out of school. For the next eight years, the Black world of Atlanta became a musical tapestry for Dorsey, who spent much of his time soaking up the blues played in vaudeville theaters. Practicing and mastering what he heard allowed him to earn a meager living playing at parties, in bars, and in brothels. But Atlanta was not enough; another turn awaited him.

At twenty, Dorsey headed for Chicago, where he learned that his Atlanta style was passé: jazz and a more improvisational 12-bar blues held the day. It was here that he began to straddle the secular and sacred musical worlds. The effort took a toll and Dorsey suffered the first of two nervous breakdowns. He turned back to Atlanta to recover, but as soon as he was able, he returned to Chicago, becoming the became the arranger and composer of songs for the phenomenal Ma Rainey. As Sterling Brown immortalized her in his poem, “Ma Rainey,” her gritty, suggestive lyrics and heartfelt blues of loss and longing, reached her audiences in ways few other performers could hope to achieve.

Another turn awaited Dorsey in 1925. He had married, but once again he suffered a nervous breakdown. This time, he was unable to play the piano for three years. When his skills returned, he continued to write the blues, but he also wrote more sacred music. Although he was still writing and publishing his blues songs, he could not make a living writing only for the church. A breakthrough occurred in 1930, when his “If You See My Savior”—written some years before at the death of a friend—won over the audience at the National Baptist Convention. In effect, Dorsey’s synthesis of the Blues, spirituals and hymns was gaining traction among church people, where it has remained since. 

In 1932, while Dorsey was away from Chicago, his wife, Hettie, died in childbirth, followed hours later by their infant son. In the ensuing weeks, Dorsey wrote new lyrics for the 1844 hymn, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” The old tune became “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” with Dorsey maintaining that the lyrics were written by God. The song’s extraordinary beauty and power was one of the reasons Dorsey earned the title, “Father of Gospel Music,” a title he carried to his death in 1993.

From his early days in Chicago, Dorsey revealed his entrepreneurial talent that secured him a place in the roster of great composers and arrangers of the Blues. He had been copyrighting and printing his blues songs, and marketing them with. The next obvious step was to do the same with his gospel songs. Many churches resisted Dorsey’s music, vilifying it, calling it demonic. But Dorsey’s gospel blues carried the freedom and improvisational possibilities not found in the spirituals and European-style hymns favored by the large choirs in mainstream Black churches. This was to change after “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” 

Thomas Dorsey may not be well-known to many in the United States, but it is likely that few have missed hearing, or seeing, his enormous influence on American music —both religious and secular. Like W. C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, and many other virtuosos of the blues and jazz, Dorsey had begun his musical journey in the Black church. Not only was he exposed to traditional spirituals and Protestant hymns, but as a boy he witnessed country blues and shape note singing—a practice where musical notes are designed by syllables and specific shapes instead of standard musical figures. 

I had hope, faith, courage, aspiration and most of all determination to accomplish something in life. . .I resolved to make a mark for myself.  - Thomas Dorsey

He had founded the “National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses” and the Dorsey House of Music, the first black publishing house for gospel music which sold thousands of copies of songs throughout the world.  In his position as Music Director at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church – where he remained for over forty years – Dorsey was a mentor to many musicians and singers, including the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson. Until the later decades of his life, he traveled throughout the world, celebrated for the enduring power of his music.

Dorsey’s thousands of blues and gospel songs influenced American music as much as those of any other American composer. In what has been called, “the gospelization of rhythm and blues,” such black singers as Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and a legion of others black singers beginning in the late 1950s, brought the gospel styles of their youth to popular music. Along with smooth legato lines and blue notes, gospel singers frequently add melisma, a style where many notes emanate from one syllable. One of the most famous practitioners of this is Stevie Wonder, but it is popular in all genres of music, including folk, country and western, and children’s songs. Soundtracks of television shows and movies demonstrate Gospel’s enormous range in chord progressions formerly reserved for the Blues and jazz. The cadences of Gospel singing also bear a close relationship to classic call and response black preaching and speech-making. 

Dorsey was known as a reserved, dignified and dapper man. And although he was to write thousands of other gospel songs, including “Peace in the Valley,” sung today as in was in the past, not one has equaled the one created from his nearly unbearable grief, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Sung at funerals of the famous, infamous, and just regular folk, the song has a singular place in the annals of American music.   

Dr. Gayle Pemberton is Professor Emerita of English and African American Studies at Wesleyan University, the author of The Hottest Water in Chicago, and an advisor to New Profit. She is a former Guggenheim Foundation, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute and Ford Foundation fellow. Read her first Before Us, Among Us post for New Profit, Celebrating Black Artists Who Lifted Up Movements, Shaped Our Culture, and Changed History.

For further reading:

A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (Music in American Life), Robert M. Marovich. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church, Michael Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Anointed to Sing the Gospel: The Levitical Legacy of Thomas A. Dorsey, Kathryn B. Kemp. Chicago: Joyful Noise Press, 2015.

Thomas A. Dorsey Father of Black Gospel Music an Interview: Genesis of Black Gospel Music, Robert L. Taylor. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing Company, 2014.