‘Precious Lord’ Was Born of Tragedy

Photos, news clippings and rare early blues recordings of gospel pioneer Thomas A Dorsey, who wrote the classic "Precious Lord," are among the mementos kept by his son Thomas M. Dorsey at his Oak Park, Michigan home, as seen February 27, 2013. (Kathleen Galligan/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

Photos, news clippings and rare early blues recordings of gospel pioneer Thomas A Dorsey, who wrote the classic "Precious Lord," are among the mementos kept by his son Thomas M. Dorsey at his Oak Park, Michigan home, as seen February 27, 2013. (Kathleen Galligan/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

detroit — When Thomas M. Dorsey was growing up, he didn’t realize that his father was a pioneer in gospel music.

But from the time he was a little boy, tagging along on the church circuit, until he became a man, who escorted his dad to major concert halls, there was one song people always wanted to hear — Precious Lord.

“That was the primary song people always sang in tribute to him,” said Dorsey, 71, of Oak Park, Ill., whose father, Thomas A. Dorsey, is widely regarded as the father of gospel music.

The elder Dorsey wrote the lyrics of Precious Lord in 1932 to a melody from an 1844 hymn titled Maitland by American composer George N. Allen.

The song and the man who wrote its lyrics were celebrated recently at a program presented by the University of Michigan Dearborn.

“Precious Lord is probably second only to Amazing Grace when we look at a spiritual/religious text that has international popularity and reaches across racial and cultural borders,” said Deborah Smith Pollard, a gospel music scholar and professor of literature and humanities at U-M Dearborn.

Precious Lord has been published in more than 40 languages. It has been sung by singers as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Little Richard, Merle Haggard, Engelbert Humperdinck and Elvis Presley. Mahalia Jackson sang it at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Opera soprano Leontyne Price sang Precious Lord at the funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Thomas A. Dorsey was friends with another great gospel singer, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s Franklin’s father.

Detroit was a frequent stop as Dorsey traveled the country, seeking to build respect and a solid foundation for gospel music, a genre of religious music that was not readily accepted in many church circles. He planted seeds that helped make Detroit a gospel powerhouse.

“The song speaks to people in their moment of need,” said the Rev. Marvin Winans, a gospel singer and preacher. “I grew up in church where people would just stand up and start singing it.”

“It symbolizes the real frustrations, the challenges of trying to traverse life’s experiences and all that that encompasses,” said Tammy Kernodle, a minister and professor of musicology at Miami University in Ohio who spoke at the celebration. “The song embodies that primal, organic scream that says simply, “I need help! I can’t carry on by myself.’ ”

Precious Lord was born of a real and personal tragedy, which makes it all the more powerful. While Dorsey was out of town, his wife died in childbirth. Their son died hours later.

Wracked with grief, Dorsey sat at a piano and wrote the song.

Thomas A. Dorsey eventually remarried. In addition to his son he had a daughter, Doris Anderson of South Holland, Ill.

Thomas M., who graduated from Western Michigan University, keeps many mementos of his father in his home, including a framed display that includes photos, awards and sheet music of Precious Lord.

Although his father tried to spark his interest in music, Dorsey never shared his dad’s passion for it. He worked most of his life as an industrial engineer, retiring in 1998 from Michigan Consolidated Gas.

“He made me take piano lessons, but I always wanted to play ball instead,” Dorsey said. “He used to say, ‘You have a piano and you won’t practice. I used to practice on the handlebars of my bike.’”

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But the most treasured time for the dad and son was fishing on the St. Joseph River, near their Three Rivers cottage.

“Outside of church, that’s where I got to spend the most time with him,” Dorsey said.

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“That was his pride and joy,” Dorsey said of the summer cottage his dad purchased in the late 1940s. “He’d invite his church buddies up on weekends and they’d sit around talking, eating fish and waxing their cars.”

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One of the most important lessons his father taught him was to serve others without always expecting pay.

“He used to make me cut the neighbors’ lawns on both sides of us in Chicago, and the lawn next door in Three Rivers. And in Three Rivers that was a lot of lawn,” Dorsey said. “But he’d tell me, ‘You’ll do a lot in life and you won’t be paid for it. Don’t look for compensation every time you do something. You’ll get your blessing eventually.’”

That advice motivates him still. The retiree volunteers at the Don Boscoe Hall and the Detroit Optimist Foundation.

That same advice must have kept Thomas A. Dorsey singing and promoting gospel music. In its formative years, many people called it the devil’s music, shunning Dorsey for bringing blues and jazz chords with him into the church.

But his persistence paid off, as gospel music and musicians are widely respected today.

He penned hundreds of songs, including “Peace in the Valley.”

But the son’s favorites are “One More River to Cross” and “When I’ve Done the Best I Can.”

“To me, those songs epitomized his life in terms of his struggle to get gospel music accepted,” Dorsey said.

“I think he’d be very happy about the growth of gospel music, knowing that he pioneered the effort to make it accepted; not he alone, but with others.”

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“Precious Lord”

Lyrics by Thomas A. Dorsey

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

When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near

When my light is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I’m 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

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©2013 Detroit Free Press

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PRECIOUS-LORD

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