Out of Pain and Tragedy Gospel Music Was Born
“The Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas Dorsey, was on the brink of suicide when he decided to rededicate his life to making music to satisfy the Lord.
Originating as a blues musician, Dorsey was skilled at capturing pain and grief in his music and this became self-evident in 1932 as he arranged his magnum opus -- “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” -- after the tragic death of his wife and son during childbirth.
Despite the gravity of the tune, it became an instant classic and has been performed by Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and was Martin Luther King’s favorite song.
Born in Georgia, Dorsey was the the son of a Baptist pastor and no stranger to the sacred hymns that echoed throughout the church.
As he grew up, he showed such an affinity for secular jazz and blues music that he set out to bridge them with the songs he was accustomed to hearing during Sunday service.
After attending a vaudeville show by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, he was entranced and doubled down on his commitment to music. Adopting the nickname “Georgia Tom,” Dorsey landed his first gig as Ma Rainey’s piano player in 1924.
The show biz life soon proved too overwhelming for him.
While he struggled, he never stopped writing and eventually achieved massive commercial success with a risque blues song called “It’s Tight Like That,” which sold over 7 million copies. However, this made it quite difficult when he hoped to return to playing in churches.
His subsequent compositions were met with staunch resistance from community members and he was even banned from many Southern churches that refused to welcome his modern take on their hymns.
Despite the criticism, the birth of gospel music came as a result of Dorsey pushing against these boundaries and redefining norms around Black spirituality.
Although Dorsey was ahead of his time, he has since been recognized by the Songwriters Hall of Fame for his contributions to music and would be proud of what gospel music has evolved into today.
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