Thomas Andrew Dorsey
Thomas Andrew Dorsey
Thomas Andrew Dorsey
Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1900-1993), often called the Father of Gospel Music, migrated from Atlanta to Chicago as a young man, thus exemplifying the experience of many southern blacks of his day. This journey is also critical to an understanding of what Michael W. Harris called "the rise of gospel blues" in his book of that title, which chronicles the role Dorsey's music played in urban churches.
There was a great deal of early resistance to Dorsey's work, partly because it was rooted in the rural southern African American culture from which the old-line urban churches sought to distance themselves in favor of assimilation. These churches discouraged expressive congregational participation and attempted to incorporate white church traditions in both service and music. In addition, the blues factor of the gospel blues equation had associations with secular venues and activities often discouraged by the church. It is perhaps Dorsey's greatest achievement that he was able to overcome this opposition and thus preserve important aspects of black musical expression as it had existed in both the spiritual and secular realms.
Dorsey, one of five children, was born in Villa Rica, Georgia on July 1, 1900, but soon moved with his family to Atlanta. His father was a Baptist minister with a flamboyant pulpit style. His mother played a portable organ and piano wherever the elder Dorsey preached. Young Dorsey was influenced musically by his mother's brother, an itinerant blues musician. He also was influenced by her brother-in-law, a teacher who favored shaped note singing—also known as "fasola" (fa-so-la), a rambunctious, 19th-century congregational style propagated by songbooks and popular in the rural South in which four distinct shapes (the diamond, for one) correspond to specific notes on the musical scale. In The Rise of Gospel Blues Michael Harris noted, "Other than slave spirituals, the white Protestant hymns and shaped note music, Dorsey describes a type of 'moaning' as the only other style of religious song he recalls." He left school early and was soon hanging around theaters and dance halls. His association with musicians there encouraged him to practice at home on his mother's organ, and by age 12, he claimed that he could play the piano very well. Before long he was earning money playing at private parties and bordellos. In order to improve his skills and identify himself as a professional, he briefly took piano lessons from a teacher associated with Morehouse College, as well as a harmony course at the college itself.
Moved to Chicago
Dorsey's desire to become a professional musician motivated him to move to Philadelphia in 1916. However, his plans soon changed and he settled in Chicago, then abuzz with both migrant workers and migrant musicians. According to Harris, Dorsey's piano style was already somewhat out of vogue by then. Although he was still able to find work, he remained on the periphery of the music community. Harris observed the Dorsey was held back by his lack of technique and repertoire, which prevented him from joining the union. A further obstacle was the sheer size and wealth of the musical community. In order to increase his chances for employment, he enrolled in the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging. Thus, for the rest of his life, Dorsey able to find work as a composer and arranger. By 1920, he was prospering. However, the demanding schedule of playing at night, working at other jobs during the day, and studying in between led him to the first of two nervous breakdowns. He was so ill that his mother had to go to Chicago to bring him back to Atlanta.
Dorsey returned to Chicago in 1921. His uncle encouraged him to attend the National Baptist Convention, where he was impressed by the singing of W. M. Nix. As Dorsey related in The Rise of Gospel Blues: "My inner-being was thrilled. My soul was a deluge of divine rapture; my emotions were aroused; my heart was inspired to become a great singer and worker in the Kingdom of the Lord—and impress people just as this great singer did that Sunday morning." Dorsey soon began composing sacred songs and took a job as director of music at New Hope Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side, where he described the congregation's singing of spirituals "like down home," noting that the congregants also clapped to his music.
Dorsey's conversion was fleeting. He was soon playing with the Whispering Syncopators, making a salary commensurate with professional theater musicians. As the popularity of the blues increased in New York and Chicago, especially among non-black audiences, Dorsey was able to adapt his style to the tastes of the day. Singers like Bessie Smith, who embodied the southern tradition, were also popular, especially among black Americans.
Debut at Grand Theater
In 1924, Dorsey made his debut as "Georgia Tom" with Ma Rainey at the Grand Theater. He continued to tour with her, even after he wed in 1925, until he suffered the second of his breakdowns in 1926. The pressures of touring overwhelmed him and Dorsey considered suicide. His sister-in-law convinced him to attend church. While at a service, he had a vision, after which he pledged to work for the Lord. It was not long before he penned his first gospel blues, "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me," which was inspired by the death of a friend.
But the Lord's work would not be easy for him. Dorsey was convinced that the same experiences that had engendered secular blues should also inform church music. As he was quoted as saying in The Rise of Gospel Blues: "If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues; he feels like expressing it. The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you're not singing blues; you're singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it's the same feeling, a grasping of the heart." In a purely musical sense, the blues was merely a collection of improvisational techniques to Dorsey. Nevertheless, imparting a bluesy feel to a traditional arrangement was shocking to many, though Dorsey was able to vary the effect depending on his audience and their reaction. He was soon making printed copies of his gospel blues. However, since he relied on the performer to embellish the music, they did not sell well. Before long he was back to writing and performing secular blues. In 1928, "It's Tight Like That" became a hit, selling seven million copies.
Although Dorsey claimed to have been thrown out of some of the best churches, Harris observed that the time was right for Dorsey's eventual success. There were increasing numbers of store-front churches that appealed to southern migrants, and there was a booming trade in recorded sermons of the type Dorsey's father might have delivered. Harris even linked the blues soloist to the preacher, as each embodies the yearning of a people and manifests that yearning principally through improvisation. There were also a growing number of influential choirs in Chicago, challenging the musical norms of the established churches, though Dorsey was usually more associated with the rise of the solo tradition. In the late 1920s, he would begin work with one of the great gospel soloists of all time, Mahalia Jackson. According to Dorsey, she asked him to coach her, and for two months they worked together on technique and repertoire. They would tour together in the 1940s.
In 1931, Dorsey again experienced great personal tragedy. The death in childbirth of both his wife and newborn son devastated him. As he related in the documentary Say Amen Somebody, "People tried to tell me things that were soothing to me … none of which have ever been soothing from that day to this." Out of that tragedy he wrote "Precious Lord," the song for which he is best known. This work has been translated into 50 languages and recorded with success by gospel and secular singers alike, including Elvis Presley. A second song, "Peace in the Valley," was a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford and others. In 1932 Dorsey was appointed musical director of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, a post he held until his retirement in 1983. 1932 was also the year he formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses with blues singer Sallie Martin. Their collaboration would continue over the years as his fame spread, Martin often accompanying him on his tours around the country. She also helped him with his publishing business, which quickly became so successful that people nationwide called any piece of gospel sheet music a "Dorsey."
Dorsey remarried in 1941. His career continued to flourish. He would eventually compose over 3,000 songs. Well known within the African American community, Dorsey nonetheless remained relatively obscure outside of it—though people were singing his songs all over the world—until he became the subject of a BBC documentary in 1976. His appearance with another great gospel singer, Willie Mae Ford Smith, in the documentary Say Amen Somebody also afforded him considerable exposure. In that film, after being helped into a room, he addresses a group of people, moving comfortably in and out of song all the while. He was ordained a minister in his sixties, formalizing the union of song and worship. The Pilgrim Baptist Church created the T. A. Dorsey Choir to honor him in 1983. Dorsey died of Alzheimer's disease on January 23, 1993 in Chicago, Illinois. However, he lives on each Sunday as voices rise in praise, singing the gospel across the land.
Harris, Michael W., The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church, Oxford University Press, 1992.
We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Ann Arbor News, February 24, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1993.
Down Beat, April 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 1993.
Jet, February 8, 1993.
Newsweek, February 8, 1993.
New York Times, January 25, 1993.
Time, February 8, 1993.
Village Voice, October 5, 1982.
Washington Post, January 25, 1993; January 31, 1993. □
Dorsey, Thomas Andrew
Dorsey, Thomas Andrew
(b. 1 July 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia; d. 23 January 1993 in Chicago, Illinois), called “The Father of Gospel Music” for the contributions he made as songwriter, arranger, choir director, and publisher in the development of gospel hymnody. Dorsey helped usher in the Golden Age of Gospel (1930-1960).
Dorsey was the first of three children born to the Reverend Thomas Madison Dorsey and Etta Plant. His father was a farmer and a Baptist preacher who ministered to two rural churches and ran a school during the winter months and his mother was a property owner as a result of an insurance settlement following her first husband’s death. Thomas often accompanied his father and thus came to know the characteristic forms of worship and singing in a rural southern black congregation. He learned to play the piano from his mother and shape-note hymnody from his uncle, Corrie M. Hindsman, who was also a pastor. His mother also taught him the significance of “moaning,” a deeply felt emotional reading of a hymn, which was the source of the style of embellishment in the gospel blues that Dorsey came to write. In addition, he got some formal instruction from Mrs. Graves in Atlanta, who taught Morehouse College students (although Dorsey himself did not attend More-house), and from the Chicago College of Composition. His principal teachers were the people he sought to emulate, Ed Butler and Eddie Heywood, the respective pianists at “81” and “92” (film and vaudeville houses serving Atlanta’s African American community), and the African American entertainers—singers, bands, and vaudevillians—who performed in Atlanta theaters.
Dorsey worked at the “81” after his family moved to Atlanta in 1908. He found the move a distasteful experience for a number of reasons, such as encountering color status within the African American community for the first time (Dorsey was very dark-skinned and “African” in his features), and having to begin school over again at a lower grade than he had finished at Villa Rica. Those factors forced him to think about ways of making a living, a step that would begin to define his lifetime work. At this point in his life religious music was not his first order of business, although he did learn the popular hymns featured in the evangelist Billy Sunday’s revivals as arranged by his musician, Homer Rodeheaver. He also studied C. A. Tindley’s work, which embedded hymn and revival tunes in the idioms and tonalities of the southern black Baptist and Methodist churches. What mattered during his Atlanta years was developing his piano skills— playing at house parties and in bordellos—and gaining a reputation as someone with talent. He would continue in this same path when he relocated to Chicago by way of Gary, Indiana, in 1916. Although he returned to Atlanta between 1917 and 1918, he was back in Chicago to stay by 1919. He did not attend high school.
Dorsey had a significant career as a blues musician during the 1920s before devoting himself completely to religious music in 1932. This change was the result of a conversion experience that marked the end of a two-year period of depression. The death of his wife, Nettie Harper (whom he had married in 1925), in August 1932 after having given birth to a baby boy who died one day later made the change final. He eventually remarried in 1941 and had two children, a son and a daughter, by his second wife, Kathryn Mosely.
Although one of his gospel songs, “If You See My Savior,” was a hit at the 1930 National Baptist Convention and, moreover, he worked very briefly as the director of music at the New Hope Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, his principal work during this period was in blues. The money was better. He played with Will Walker’s Whispering Syncopators for four months and began composing and arranging as southern-style blues began to catch on in Chicago. Dorsey was the pianist and the head of the Wild Cats Jazz Band, a group that toured with Ma Rainey. It was during this period that he took the nickname “Georgia Tom” and teamed up with Horace (“Tampa Red“) Whittaker. They called themselves “The Hokum Boys” and introduced “hokum music” with the song “It’s Tight like That.” Hokum music, with its sexual innuendoes and overtones, was one of the reasons why blues became synonymous with vulgarity and worldliness. Between 1928 and 1932 Dorsey made over sixty hokum recordings, either solo or with Tampa Red.
Dorsey’s bout with depression and the death of his first wife brought all of this activity to an end. It resulted in his writing one of his greatest songs, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a work which has become one of the United States’ most beloved hymns. It has been translated into over fifty languages and become, because of the poignancy of Dorsey’s lyrics, an Everyman’s prayer. The turn from blues to religious music did not signal a change in the kind of writing and arranging that Dorsey did and would do. Instead, he carried what he had learned into writing gospel music. The blues style suited Dorsey’s feel for improvisation and embellishment, and the immediacy and power of his lyrics encouraged powerful performances by individuals (Mahalia Jackson would be a Dorsey presenter from 1935 to 1946) and choirs. Dorsey became the director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church Choir in 1931.
Dorsey’s music did not catch on immediately. He and others who joined him (such as Sallie Martin, the first singer to work with Dorsey in demonstrating and popularizing his music) had to work very hard to spread the word of gospel music and have it accepted and used in the larger black Baptist churches of Chicago and to be featured at the National Baptist Convention meetings. In addition to trying to sell his music, he formed a publishing house and he and Sallie Martin formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, thus effectively giving gospel music an institutional base. There, Dorsey remained active until the 1970s, when failing health forced him into semi-retirement. In 1983 he was featured in the documentary “Say Amen, Somebody.” He died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1993 after spending the last year of his life in a coma.
Gospel music did not start with Dorsey. He drew on traditions and forms that were part of his training and experience, but he gave them shape and power and thereby contributed enormously to the development of a singular musical form, a fact others acknowledged by making the name “Dorsey” synonymous with gospel music.
The major work on Dorsey is Michael Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (1992). This is likely to remain the definitive reading of Dorsey’s life and work for some time. Other texts that discuss Dorsey in the development of gospel and gospel performers are Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (1997); Alan Young, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (1997); and Horace Clarence Boyer, The Golden Age of Gospel (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (25 Jan. 1993).
Robert B. Carey