Born JULY 1, 1899Thomas Andrew Dorsey is known as the “Father of Gospel Music.” He earned that distinction by blend-ing two powerful musical styles of his day—church hymn music and the blues—making a new sound for worshiping God. Thomas is recognized by both genres as a successful writer and performer.
Thomas grew up in Georgia, in poverty. On Sun-days, his father preached and his mother played the church organ. Thomas gained a feel for hymn music. The Dorsey family’s move from Villa Rica to Atlanta to improve their financial standing exposed Thomas to the blues. That sound appealed to him too.
He learned to play blues on the piano. His enthusiasm for the style eventually drew him out of the church. At age 17, Thomas moved to Chicago to ply his new skill. The Windy City offered opportunities for young musicians. It also offered negative influences: Thomas found work playing in nightclubs. His soft touch on the keys was described as the “whispering piano” sound.
In 1920, Thomas sought a more legitimate musical education. He attended the Chicago School of Composition. His studies led to his penning and selling an original blues song. But the long hours and emotional demands of his life led to a nervous breakdown, cutting short his ability to travel to play and promote his music.
GEORGIA TOMChicago’s thriving cultural climate of the 1920s reinvigorated Thomas. He made a name for himself playing piano as Georgia Tom. His keyboard style backed the recordings of performers like Tampa Red and Ma Rainey. In that highly charged, sordid environment, Thomas kept writing, penning lyrics that denied any trace of his spiritual upbringing.
Regardless of commercial success, Thomas struggled internally. The Holy Spirit kept drawing him. Near the end of the decade, now married, the talented pianist abandoned the intoxicating lifestyle he’d lived.
Thomas submitted his talents to God, committing himself solely to sacred music. The future looked bright for all the right reasons. But at the start of the new decade, tragedy and triumph would mix.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
Thomas had gained a reputation for understanding music. In 1931 he was appointed as director of music at the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Chicago. By then, he’d successfully merged the musical styles of his life. The new sound caught on in the church. Thomas traveled and played his music at church conventions. At the meetings, other choir directors lined up to purchase his sheet music.
Then came an opportunity in 1932 to introduce his songs in St. Louis at a massive church revival. Thomas was torn. He felt he should stay home with his pregnant wife, Nettie. She might give birth to their first child at any moment. Following much hesitation, Thomas left for St. Louis.
On the second night of the revival meetings, he received a telegram. The good news: he had a son. The bad news: Nettie had died giving birth. The grieving song writer returned to Chicago to mourn. The next day, his son also died.
“PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND” 1932
The funeral (with his wife and son in the same casket) came and went. Thomas left the service deeply grieved. He visited a close friend. Sitting at a piano, a prayer rose from within that Thomas phrased into words while he played.
“Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn,
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”
The Lord took his hand during the long recovery. He led Thomas to be appointed as choir director for the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. He would hold that post for the next 50 years. That same year, Thomas helped establish the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
“PEACE IN THE VALLEY” 1939
At the other end of the decade, he wrote his other best-known hymn. In 1939, while Thomas fervently served God, forces of destruction were at work in Europe. Late in the year, Adolph Hitler’s propaganda campaign led to military action. He overpowered Poland, alerting the rest of the world to his true intentions.
That year, Thomas traveled by train across Indiana. Passing through a valley, he noticed the serenity of the animals grazing together. He wished human residents outside that valley could live together as peacefully as those sheep, horses, and cows. He put his thoughts on paper.
The chorus reads like another prayer from the soul of Thomas Dorsey:
“There will be peace in the valley for me, some day,
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray,
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow,
No trouble, trouble I see,
There will be peace in the valley for me.”
BREAKING RACIAL BARRIERSBy the 1940s Thomas Dorsey’s music was well established in African American churches. He sold a lot of sheet music. He traveled with choirs. He also featured soloists. He helped launch the career of Mahalia Jackson, who would eventually be dubbed “The Queen of Gospel.”
Thomas’ songs were gaining acceptance outside the African American church. The leading hymnal publishing companies started including his songs. Beginning in the 1950’s, singers of country music and Southern gospel popularized Thomas’ songs as well.
In 1951, when country singer Red Foley recorded Peace in the Valley, it sold a million copies. Other white perform-ers embraced the song. Among them: Elvis Presley, who introduced the hymn to a national TV audience in 1956 on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Country singers also made records of Precious Lord, Take My Hand in the 1950s. In the following decades, it was recorded by singers as diverse as Jimmy Durante, Lawrence Welk, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Randy Travis. Thomas’ song combining deep sorrow and a strong faith has a universal appeal. It’s been translated into at least 35 languages.
The song Precious Lord, Take My Hand has become a consoling hymn at funerals. Mahalia Jackson sang it at Martin Luther King’s funeral. The song many identified with Mahalia was sung at her funeral in 1972, by Aretha Franklin, who had recorded it. A year later at President Lyndon Johnson’s state funeral, opera singer Leontyne Price sang it.A 1982 documentary titled Say Amen, Somebody highlighted the origins and impact of gospel music (link to YouTube excerpt below). People were able to see the man behind the music and hear him tell his story and sing some of his songs.
The musical style that Thomas Dorsey pioneered and the church choral singing he helped popularize has spread around the world. He lived to see and hear its impact. Thomas died at age 93, in January of 1993. His funeral was held at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church where he served for over half his life.
LET ME KNOW: How has Thomas’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Collins, Ace, Turn Your Radio On. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1999.
- Davis, Paul, Inspirational Hymns and Songs of the Twentieth Century. Greenville, SC: Ambassador Publications.
- Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- A portion of the film Say Amen, Somebody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RofuWfE6nUk.
- Thomas Dorsey telling the story behind Precious Lord, Take My Hand: (singer, Marion Williams) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlmCflPD2s8,
- Mahalia Jackson singing Precious Lord, Take My Hand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0a8RNdnhNo.
- Other famous singers singing Precious Lord, Take My Hand: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=precious+lord+take+my+hand&oq=precious+lord+take&gs_l=youtube.1.0.0l10.166773.171056.0.173622.214.171.124.126.96.36.1996.2004.3j6j2j1.12.0…0.0…1ac.1.11.youtube.vvOJrZMPaAg
- Elvis Presley singing Peace in the Valley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMD8d7oUjxw.
- Red Foley singing Peace in the Valley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTk5Z_iZ69I.
- Other famous singers singing Peace in the Valley: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=peace+in+the+valley&oq=peace+in+the+valley&gs_l=youtube.3..0l10.4653.10105.0.113188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.3220.127.116.11…0.0…1ac.1.11.youtube.5ZetMYeYyZc.