Celebrating Georgia’s legends, landmarks and unsung heroes

The Life and Legacy of the Rev. Thomas Andrew Dorsey

Take My Hand, Lead Me Home

The Life and Legacy of the Rev. Thomas Andrew Dorsey

By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz

Summer 2008

Photo Credit: George T. Nierenberg

 

Augusta, Ga., May 1970: I’m sitting in the Bell Auditorium watching Robert Blair of the Violinaires “walking the crowd.” A single spotlight shines down upon his glistening processed hair and dances off his tangerine-colored alligator shoes. A pool of sweat darkens the floor beneath him. He is singing “Mother Used to Hold Me,” a song about his childhood, and the comforts of his mother’s arms. The audience listens silently, except for an occasional “amen” or “tell it,” that pierces the air. As he sings, he begins to go from actual words to a sound that starts as a sort of hum, and rises to an anguished moan. Some begin to moan along with him, while a few stand and begin to gently sway back and forth. For many, myself included, the tears begin to flow, but they are not tears of sorrow. They are the tears of shared memories, of gentle mothers and their comforting arms. They are brought on not by words, but by a moan.

Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Ga., on July 1, 1899. His father, the Rev. Thomas Madison Dorsey, was an itinerant preacher, traveling from town to town, delivering the word in his own flamboyant style. He dressed sharp and carried a walking stick.

Although he was well received everywhere he went, he just couldn’t make enough money to support his family. So he and his wife Etta returned to her hometown to try farming. Even though Etta owned some land, they still couldn’t make a living; she sold off most of the property and they moved back to Atlanta. From Atlanta they moved to Forsyth, and then finally in 1903, back to Villa Rica. They were then forced to make a living from sharecropping, with the reverend preaching only every now and then.

Thomas Andrew would never forget those early days: the contrast of the two lifestyles. The backbreaking, demeaning life of the sharecropper, and the comparatively enjoyable times spent with his father when he preached. He would recall, “We’d travel around and get good food everywhere you went … you’d get to meet different people, me being the pastor’s son, well naturally, they’d make a fuss over me.” [1]

Photo Credit: George T. Nierenberg

There were two other major influences on the young man. The first was his brother-in-law, Phil Plant, a wandering, guitar-picking hobo who exposed Dorsey to a style of music that later would become known as the blues. The second, Corrie Hinsman, Etta’s brother-in-law, would introduce him to the concept of “shaped note singing,” popular in the white churches.

So it was the old slave spirituals, white Protestant hymns, the shaped note style, early blues and most important, “the moan.” Thomas Andrew heard them and would never forget them.

 

Atlanta

After five years, the family was still living in abject poverty; they couldn’t make it. In 1908, they decided to try Atlanta once again. It was not an easy transition.

His parents were forced to work the variety of menial odd jobs available to blacks at the time, and the young boy had a hard time in school. Young Thomas Andrew had a hard time adjusting to city life, but he maintained an inner resolve that, one day, he would make something of himself. He

didn’t know what that was, but he was determined nonetheless. At the age of 12, he found out.

He had begun going to the theaters on Decatur Street in Atlanta. Theaters with names like the 81 Theater and the 91 Theater. These theaters featured movies as well as live entertainment. It was at these shows that he first heard the “lowdown” blues of singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. They sang about love gone wrong, the joys of Saturday nights with a pig foot and a bottle of beer, and when they ran out of words, just as the folks did in the churches back home, when the spirit took hold, they would moan. Dorsey was fascinated by the piano players that accompanied the movies and the singers, and became determined to learn how to “tickle the ivories.”

He began to hang around the theaters, watching the players and pestering them to show him how to play. One man who took an interest in him was Ed Butler. Butler showed him the basics of barrelhouse style piano, along with the trills, improvisations and “trickerations” that went along with it.

Thomas would go home and practice for hours on his family’s pump organ and his brother-in-law’s piano. It was all by rote—nothing was written down, just basic chord patterns over which the musician would play improvised figures.

According to Dorsey, within 16 months he had become “an accomplished pianist,” playing well enough to perform in public. Although he played well, this rough, barrelhouse style limited the places he could play. Most of the time, his gigs were at rent parties and bordellos. His description of those places: “You got all the food you could eat, and all the liquor you could drink, and a good-looking woman to fan you. If you left with 75 cents or a dollar in your pocket, you had a good night, and yet you done played for about two or three hours.” [2]

Being unable to read music, that’s where it ended. Even though he worked a lot, the more experienced, musically literate musicians even began to make fun of him, calling him “Barrelhouse Tom.” Once again, his determination led him to send away for home-study courses and he taught himself how to read music.

He began to get some respect, even play some better gigs, but as he looked down the road, he saw himself stuck in a Jim Crow town with limited opportunities. He made up his mind: “I wanted to go where the lights were brighter, and you didn’t have to run to catch the last street car at midnight.” [3] In July 1916, he left for Philadelphia, but first decided to visit some family in Chicago.

 

Chicago, Take 1

Then he hit the Windy City, it was undergoing a great migration of blacks from the South. The promise of better jobs, and a new life, brought new arrivals by the thousands. Between 1910 and 1920, the black population of Chicago increased by 150 percent. Among them was a host of the finest musicians from the South. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy were only a few of those peddling their musical wares in the new Promised Land.

Once again, Dorsey found work playing the rent parties and back room bars, but he couldn’t cope with the brutal winter, so he returned to Atlanta in less than a year. This cycle he would repeat for the next two years, until in 1918, he tired of going back and forth, and finally settled for good in Chi-town.

 

Chicago, Take 2

Although there were plenty of gigs in Chicago, Dorsey still found himself in the back of the bus. Once again, he was mainly playing rent parties and low-class dives. Blues were not being played in the high-class bars and clubs. Instead, a new kind of music, known as “Jass,” played by the New Orleans musicians, combining elements of blues, ragtime, gospel, marches, and even bits of classical, was tearing up the town.

Although Dorsey didn’t play it, he was able to exploit it. He found out that most of these jass (jazz) musicians could read music, but not arrange it. He enrolled in the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging in 1920. He registered his first composition, “If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving, You Can Count The Days I’m Gone.” That same year, another event occurred that would, again, change his life.

In New York, musician Perry Bradford convinced General [aka Okeh] Records to release a song by “a colored girl named Mamie Smith.” Her recording of “Crazy Blues” was a smash. Overnight, the music industry began to reassess its contempt for the blues. It was not, however, the “lowdown, gutbucket blues” that Dorsey knew. It was smoother, adulterated and watered down for the general public. Dorsey adapted his style, and the work got a little better.

However, his frantic schedule of gigs at night, odd jobs during the day and trying to study arranging finally caught up to the sensitive country boy from Georgia. In October of 1920, he crashed, suffering a complete nervous breakdown. His mother brought him home to Atlanta to recover, and talked to him gently about his dwindling spiritual life.

 

Chicago, Take 3

In 1921, Dorsey returned to Chicago. One night, at his uncle’s urging, he went to a religious convention and heard the legendary Rev. W.M. Nix preach. Nix was as close to a blues singer as he was preacher; he punctuated his spoken words with improvised singing, much like a blues player might accent his words with an improvised guitar riff, and of course, he moaned. Dorsey was electrified, and his faith restored.

He joined New Hope Baptist Church, and wrote his first sacred song “If I Don’t Get There.” He did notice that much of the music sung in the established black churches had become very staid; the Anglican hymns, even the old-time spirituals were being sung in a reserved and dignified way. The parishioners, many of them freshly arrived from the South, were being admonished to behave in a “civilized manner.” They did so publicly, but in private often complained, “They don’t ever sing now like they did then.”

Although he became active in the church, Dorsey had not given up on secular music. As a matter of fact, for the first time, he was beginning to have a degree of success with his own style of the blues. Thanks to Columbia Record Company’s recordings of Bessie Smith, the style of blues that he loved had indeed begun to catch on. Along with Smith, others like Ma Rainey were selling thousands of records that had “that lowdown feeling, and that good old lowdown moan.”

Dorsey became Rainey’s bandleader, and toured with her from 1924 to 1926. In 1925, he met, and married Nettie Harper. She became Rainey’s wardrobe mistress. They traveled together and enjoyed “one long honeymoon.” The schedule was a grind, but the money was good, and although he struggled inwardly with his faith, he didn’t let it interfere with his current success.

He was also beginning to notice that the audience reactions to Ma Rainey were much like those of the congregations’ reaction to W.M. Nix. Instead of merely listening, they would cry back to her, they would jump and shout when it touched them, and when it hit something deep inside, it brought out the moan. He became convinced that church folks needed songs that expressed feelings, and songs that gave the vocalist a chance to improvise and bring out the spirit within them.

He wanted to write gospel blues. Meanwhile, he continued to pay the rent by touring with Rainey. Then in 1926, it

happened again.

One night on stage, he began to feel shaky. It stretched into weeks, then months, and finally two years later, he suffered another nervous breakdown. He was broke, confused and even contemplated suicide.

In 1928, at the urging of another family member, he went back to a church service and the minister whispered to him: “Brother Dorsey, there is no need for you to be looking so poorly. The Lord has too much work for you to die.”

Dorsey told the Lord: “I am ready to do your work.” [4]

Shortly thereafter, he wrote his first gospel blues, “If You See My Savior.” For the next two years, he struggled to bring his music to the churches, even while continuing his blues career on the side (to pay the rent), and under the name of Georgia Tom, recording numerous sides with Tampa Red.

Meanwhile, he went from church to church, pitching his new style of music. To many, his new gospel blues music was scandalous.  “I was thrown out of some of the best churches in Chicago,” he recalled. But times were changing. [5]

 

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 the gospel blues of Dorsey 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.

He 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.

 

Redemption

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.” [6] 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 an 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 sung 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) would never have found their voices and styles that turned music around.

Thomas Dorsey passed away Jan. 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.

 

Notes:

1) Harris, Michael W.; The Rise of Gospel Blues, New York,

Oxford University Press, 1992, pg 17.

2) ibid., pp. 38-39.  3) ibid., p.46. 4) ibid, p.96.

5) Dorsey, Thomas A,. quote from the movie Say Amen, Somebody,

Dir. George Nierenberg, 1982.

6) Dorsey, Thomas A., Precious Lord, Columbia/Legacy record/CD, CK57164, 1973, 1994.

 

Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a musician, freelance writer, and radio personality. For further info on him, go to ReverendBilly.com or revbillymail@aol.com