Summary: Part 4 focuses on the song "take My Hand, Precious Lord" by thomas A. Dorsey.
Songs of Our Faith Part 4
Scriptures: Matthew 14:22-33
As you know I grew up in a small Baptist church that was located in the country. I lived in the south and our small church was typical of a small, close knit family church. As a family church there were certain songs that stood out as it seemed that everyone knew them. Whenever our church visited other churches, their churches also knew these songs. As a young person I assumed that these were songs that were mandated that you had to know if you were to be a good Baptist. Little did I know about the origin of the song that we will discuss today. When we sung this song in our church we often sung it as a congregational song. As was the case with many of the songs I grew up singing, as a child/teenager I paid very little attention to the words of the songs versus watching the peoples’ reactions as they sung them. Several years ago I was researching some songs to download to my iPod when I came across the author’s story of how he came to write this song. I want to share this story with you now.
I. The Author and His Song
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born on July 1, 1899 on Villa Rica, Georgia and died on January 23, 1993 in Chicago, Illinois at the age of 93. He was known as "the father of black gospel music." Earlier in his life he was a leading blues pianist known as Georgia Tom. He was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s. His best known composition, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", was performed by Mahalia Jackson. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his album Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (1973), by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.
His influence was not limited to African American music, as white musicians also followed his lead. "Precious Lord" has been recorded by Albertina Walker, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Clara Ward, Dorothy Norwood, Jim Reeves, Roy Rogers, and Tennessee Ernie Ford, among hundreds of others. It was a favorite gospel song of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was sung at the rally the night before his assassination. At his request, Mahalia Jackson sung this song at his funeral. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was also a favorite of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who requested it to be sung at his funeral. The song was written out of heartache. Here is the history of the song in Mr. Thomas Dorsey own words:
“Back in 1932, I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's Southside. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn't want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66. However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.
The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED. People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was "Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead." When I got back, learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God? Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died. From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Fry, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Malone's Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows.