Thomas A. Dorsey
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Last week, in Part Four of his continuing series called “Gospel 101,” Rev. Billy C. Wirtz talked about Georgia Tom Dorsey and his successes and difficult times as a bluesman. This week, in Part Five, we find how Dorsey was a founder of gospel blues and how his life epitomized the musical transition from Saturday night to Sunday morning.
Triumph and Tragedy
The 1930 National Baptist Convention changed everything. It was here that a singer named Willie Mae Fisher introduced a composition by Thomas Dorsey titled “If You See My Savior” to the attendees. She sang, she improvised, she moaned. The response was pure bedlam. By the end of the convention, Dorsey had sold over 4,000 copies of the song and gospel blues had arrived.
He became musical director at Ebenezer Baptist Church and formed the first gospel chorus. Other churches began to form gospel choirs and called for his guidance. The gospel choruses singing Dorsey’s gospel blues spread like wildfire across the country, and in 1932, Dorsey was elected president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. In August of that year, tragedy struck once again.
Dorsey had gone to St. Louis to a gospel convention, leaving Nettie, who was due to give birth to their first son any day, at home. He didn’t want to leave, but so great was the demand, he decided to go.
During one of the concerts, he received a telegram asking him to come home quickly; Nettie was giving birth and all was not well. He waited until after the performance and called home.
Nettie had died giving birth. He rushed home, and indeed she had passed, but the baby boy, Thomas Andrew, Jr., had lived. Finally giving into exhaustion, Dorsey went to sleep. Sometime during the night, the little child also passed away.
Dorsey was a broken man. At first he became angry and felt “God had been unfair.” He wanted to quit playing, and possibly even living. Instead, a few days later, he went for a walk with a friend, and found himself at a nearby college. He sat down at a piano, and began to play the notes of an old standard. Along with his tears, some words began to fall, he says, “The words dropped just like drops of water … from the crevice of a rock.”  The words that fell were:
“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.”
Up until “Precious Lord,” Dorsey’s gospel songs had been upbeat, concentrating on celebration and hope, and bypassing the blues singers’ cry of hard times and bad luck. “Precious Lord” was the true marriage of the blues and gospel, the moan of unbearable sorrow and grief of the blues, to be redeemed by simply asking the Lord to “Take my hand, lead me home.” It changed his entire approach to songwriting as well.
Thomas Dorsey and His Legacy
The Rev. Thomas Dorsey went on to write over 400 songs in his career. His songs embraced everyday life, its triumphs, its problems, and offered the comfort and healing to be had by trusting in the Lord.
He wrote “Peace in the Valley,” the most recorded gospel song of all time.
Without him, such groups as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Five Blind Boys, and countless others would never have sang with the feeling and emotion his gospel blues allowed them to do. Without those groups, such secular singers as Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Al Green (all of whom came from the church) might never have found their voices and styles that turned music around.
Thomas Dorsey passed away January 23, 1993. He left the world with a body of songs that allowed both sacred and secular singers to express the entire range of feelings, from deepest sorrow to the greatest joy. The songs gave singers room to improvise, like W.M. Nix and the “lowdown” blues singers, to reach out and touch their audiences and congregations deep down inside, and it gave them the freedom, when there was nothing left to say, to moan like they did back in Villa Rica.
For further information on Rev. Thomas Dorsey:
The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church
Micheal W. Harris
Oxford University Press, 1992
Fantastic, exhaustively researched book by Harris. The definitive book, not only on Harris, but on the history of gospel blues.
Say Amen, Somebody
Directed by George T. Nierenberg, 1982
“The music is as exciting and uplifting as any music I’ve ever heard on film…a great experience” – Roger Ebert
“Exuberant and revitalizing” – Rolling Stone
“Even a tone-deaf atheist will say ‘amen!’” – Time
Again, another incredible piece of work. This documentary centers around Dorsey; it features interviews with him, and several of his contemporaries. The only problem is that it is out-of-print and the cost for a new copy is staggering. Look around, see what you can turn up with some of the online services. It’s worth it.
Columbia/Legacy record/CD, CK57164, 1973, 1994
Dorsey, Thomas A., and others. Dorsey tells the back story behind “Precious Lord,” A collection of the finest gospel singers (Rebert Harris. The Dixie Hunningbirds, Marion Williams, and others) sing their versions of his songs. Stunning.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about.
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