"Keeping the Hymns Close By"
Precious Lord, Take My Hand
Author - Thomas Andrew Dorsey, 1899 - 1993
Music - Adapted by Thomas Dorsey from the tune MAITLAND, by George Allen, 1844
“I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, 'Fear not; I will help thee.”
Many hymns are conceived in the throes of tragedy. "Precious Lord" was written in Chicago in 1932 following the death of Thomas Dorsey's wife and infant son during childbirth.
Thomas Dorsey was born in Georgia. His father was a Baptist preacher, and his mother a piano teacher. Known as the "Father of Black Gospel Music", Dorsey combined African American church hymns with blues and jazz. This "worldly" combination was not without controversy at first, but set the tone for gospel music for decades to come.
Born in Villa Rica, Georgia, Dorsey was reared in Atlanta from the age of five, where he came in contact with the musical sounds of the blues. He moved to Chicago in 1915 and studied at the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging and began playing in nightclubs. After suffering a severe illness in 1926, Dorsey was converted in 1928 and became active in Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. Beginning in 1932, he served as the church's choir director for forty years. Of his 1,000 musical works, at least 200 were gospel songs.
Even though he had hundreds of jazz and blues songs to his credit, he turned to gospel music, one of the first to use that term, following the tragic death of Nettie and their infant son in 1932. Dorsey provides an account of the circumstances surrounding the composition of this famous song.
"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...
...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 telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED...
When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a little boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried them together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done 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 still I was lost in grief. A friend, Professor Frye, seemed to know what I needed. He took me to a neighborhood music school. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys."
Dorsey remembered an old melody from his Sunday School days, MAITLAND by George Allen, paired with the text "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone". Arranging this tune and adding his own words, "Precious Lord" became the most famous of his many gospel songs. He gave the song to Frye who introduced it to the choir at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church the next Sunday.
The three stanzas capture the grief not only of Dorsey, but also of any who have suffered significant loss. The opening line of stanza one indicates a suffering soul that is reaching out. Stanza two draws upon the imagery of a journey, one in which the "way grows drear". By the time we reach the third stanza, the terrain has changed from a stormy sea (stanza one), a long road (stanza two), to a river of hope (stanza three). Upon singing, "at the river I stand", the singer reaches at last the final destination, the symbolic Jordan River. Each stanza concludes effectively with the refrain, "Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home", perhaps an image of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John.
Dorsey was the first African American elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Association's Living Hall of Fame.
Used by permission from "History of Hymns" by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Director of the Sacred Music Program and Distinguished Professor, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
Footnote: The writer of this hymn, Thomas Dorsey is sometimes confused with Tommy Dorsey, the jazz trombonist during the Big Band era.
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