Thinking about the previous post set me wondering about others who might have contributed richly to hymn writing through their own suffering or adversity, or through some traumatic unwelcome circumstance with which others can identify in some way in their own lives. Thomas Dorsey is one such person who through his music and personal experience found resonance with a wider public.
Dorsey had a fairly long life. He was born at the end of the 19th century, in July 1899, and he died in late January 1993, which would have made him 93 years of age. Thomas Dorsey is recognised as ‘The Father of Gospel Music’. His music is said to be loved around the world, although it is also said that, “his journey to this title and fame was a very difficult one,” so difficult that it included two breakdowns and a family tragedy.
By the age of eight, his mother, a church organist and piano teacher had taught Thomas to play both instruments. But later in his teens he learned the syncopations of blues and jazz when he visited the nightclubs of Atlanta, where musicians taught him their techniques for playing the piano.
His love for jazz and blues took Thomas outside the church to the jazz and blues halls of Chicago. His childhood Christian teachings conflicted with his striving in the secular world where he made a living for himself playing at rent parties and composing blues songs. Credited with more than 400 songs to his name Dorsey was best known under the name ‘Georgia Tom’.
In 1920 Dorsey’s skills were in high demand at night in Chicago when the blues music was at its height. He worked at other jobs during the day and continued to use all his spare time to study music. The ‘Jonah’ imagery was used of him, of being swallowed up by it all going against God’s will for his life.
His mother often appealed to him to stop playing secular music and “serve the Lord”: those appeals were ignored.
But though immersed in composing the secular, Dorsey still had one foot in the gospel world and continued to compose gospel songs.
However, at the age of 22 Thomas is said to have given his life to Jesus. Giving up the jazz clubs he begun writing Gospel music. His reputation began to grow both as a songwriter as well as a church music director.
Although churches had resisted Dorsey’s style of music Dorsey brought gospel music together in the 1920s and in the early 1930s became a band leader for two churches.
But it is through suffering and grief that he left us the legacy of his most well known song. In1932 Dorsey’s wife, Nettie, died in childbirth. Two days later the child, a son, died. It left him in deep depression doubting God’s goodness and vowing never to write another hymn again.
It is reported that, “A week after that horrible, life-changing day, Thomas was deep into his grief, sitting alone at a piano, in a friend’s music room. Into the room came a heavy peace such as he had never known before. As that peace enveloped him, Thomas felt the urge to play the piano. His fingers found a familiar melody and the words to Precious Lord, Take My Hand began to well up from his heart and to spill out of his mouth. God had given him a song that would not only lift him from despair, but would also change the course of his music career.”
It s said that by obeying the voice of God and utilizing his gifts, Thomas A. Dorsey, revolutionized sacred church music and ushered in a new genre: gospel.
For someone who suffered from two severe breakdowns and an awful tragedy that brought so much grief Thomas Dorsey would through his music and lyrics find a response from fellow humans from all walks of life. Certainly, there would be many who take comfort and solace from a fellow traveller in life, who was not just skilled in a type of music and lyrics but was someone who shared in the difficulties and frailties of human experience.
Dorsey’s works are said to “have proliferated beyond performance, into the hymnals of virtually all American churches and of English-speaking churches worldwide.” And that one song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord, lead me on, let me stand”, is published in more than 40 languages.