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musings from linda 1/19/24

Updated: Jan 19

From a young age, THOMAS DORSEY (1899-1993) simply SOAKED UP music!!


A “P.K.” — preacher’s kid  —with a mom who played the organ for church — he was always exposed to religious music.  His uncle was a country blues guitarist — and he also grew up hearing the “moaning” style of slave spirituals in his rural Georgia.


Thomas studied music informally along the way,  but also learned a great deal by listening to bands at parties, vaudeville theaters and social events.  Then, practicing long hours to hone his own keyboard skills, he became adept at improvising — eventually learning to read musical notation as well.


What REALLY turned him on, though, was PLAYING THE  BLUES!! 


Blues were growing in popularity in the 1920’s, but music in most Black churches at that time still came from traditional, established hymnals. Choir singing was more performance-oriented to “serious music” rather than an emotional expression of faith.  Clapping, stomping and improvising with lyrics were discouraged as “unrefined” and “degrading to the singer…”


Dorsey had started composing GOSPEL music, however, and in 1930 — inspired by compliments he had received, he formed a choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago. The  pastor liked Negro spirituals and indigenous singing styles  — so Dorsey started to infuse more emotion (especially JOY and ELATION!) into the hymn singing; choir performances became more rhythmic— punctuated with clapping and shouts... he was even known to jump up excitedly from the piano and stand as he played!

And — voilà! — the new style began to catch on in Chicago!  Fellow musicians urged Thomas to organize a convention where musicians could learn gospel blues.  Things were going WONDERFULLY for him!!!!

And then — — TRAGEDY struck.

In  August of 1932, while away at a convention, word reached him that his wife Nettie had died in childbirth. Grief-stricken, he rushed home to hold his infant son — only to lose him as well on the following day.  He vowed never to sing again.


Eventually — through prayer and encouragement from friends —  he began to heal, and one day he sat down at the piano…  From the depths of his soul, the music of grief flowed through his fingertips  — almost as a cry to God — as he wrote:

“Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, help me stand

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn…

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home.”

He went on to pen over 3000 (three THOUSAND!) songs in his lifetime, writing music “to bring people to Christ… to let them know God loves them.”


Years later, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say that songs “give the people new courage and a sense of unity.  I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope for the future in our most trying hours.”  Is it any surprise that his favorite hymn was PRECIOUS LORD?  He requested that Mahalia Jackson sing it at his funeral if he were to die before she did…

The last words he spoke on April 4, 1968 were to Ben Branch who was leading the music that night… “Ben, be sure to play ‘ Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight… play it real pretty...”


This past week, the nation celebrated his birthday — a federal holiday designated to encourage all of us Americans to continue the fight to eradicate racism wherever we see it. How do we do this???  One act of LOVE at a time… knowing that God is with us —  holding our hand and leading us…Need inspiration?  Click on this link to hear a heartfelt rendition of PRECIOUS LORD sung by the Boston Children’s Chorus. As you listen, use the words as your own prayer:  “Take my hand, Precious Lord — lead me on...“ 


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