Thomas A. Dorsey (1899–1993) is known as the “father of gospel music” for his development of the gospel song style and promotion of gospel music in African American churches throughout the United States. Dorsey combined the African American church hymn, such as those by Methodist minister Charles Tindley, with aspects of blues and jazz. These elements of Dorsey’s gospel songs set the tone for the African American gospel church choir tradition as it developed in northern cities throughout the period of the Great Migration.
Dorsey was born in rural Georgia, where his father was a Baptist preacher and part-time school teacher and his mother was a piano teacher. When he was still young the Dorseys moved to Atlanta, where he was taught to play the piano by a local theater musician and took on jobs playing in bordellos.
In 1916 Dorsey moved to Chicago, where he played at house parties with a band that toured with blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. When performing blues he used the name Georgia Tom. Throughout this period, Dorsey struggled with conflicting spiritual and musical interests, and he wrote both popular songs and gospel music. In the early 1930s he abandoned popular music altogether, and in 1931 he became one of the founders of Ebenezer Baptist Church’s gospel choir, the first gospel choir in the United States.
The deaths of his wife Nettie Harper and newborn son in 1932 had a profound effect on his life. That year he dedicated his life to gospel music and cofounded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses with Sallie Martin. Until the mid-1950s, this organization helped organize gospel choirs in cities across the country.
In 1932 he also composed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” He adapted the melody from the Methodist hymn tune “Maitland,” by George Allen. Dorsey’s lyrics reflect his grief at the loss of his family, and they appeal to anyone who has grieved over a significant loss.
The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book (NY: Mason Brothers, 1859).
The song was introduced at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King, Sr. was the pastor. It became his Martin Luther Kind, Jr.’s favorite hymn, from which he often drew inspiration. In 1968 Mahalia Jackson sang it at his funeral.
Mahalia Jackson’s 1956 recording of “Precious Lord” is representative of the African American gospel tradition. Jackson takes liberties with the melody, and the piano abandons the music in the published score in favor of an improvised accompaniment.