How Far from Canaan?

The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church

by Michael W. Harris
Oxford University Press, 324 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Got to Tell it: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel

by Jules Schwerin
Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Moments before he was shot in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr:, leaned over the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel and spoke to a group of men standing in the courtyard below. He asked one of them, the saxophonist Ben Branch, to have his band play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at a rally for the city’s black sanitation workers, who were embroiled in a long and bitter strike. King was in town to support their lost cause, and had preached enough funerals in black churches to know he could rely on the song’s bracing effects.

The man who wrote “Precious Lord,” Thomas A. Dorsey, died last January at the age of ninety-three. His obituaries all identified him as “The Father of Gospel Music.” Many of us have heard his music but never knew his name. “Precious Lord” became the most famous anthem of the modern black church, so ingrained in the South that on his deathbed Frank Clement, a former governor of Tennessee, asked that it be played at his funeral. Dorsey wrote another song, “Peace In The Valley,” that is a permanent item in the Elvis Presley catalog. His great achievement was to transmute blues into sacred song, and this had important consequences for both the black church and American popular music. But he was mostly overlooked by scholars until Michael Harris wrote his study The Rise of Gospel Blues. In it, Harris has also assembled Dorsey’s own account of his first forty years, pieced together from interviews, an unpublished autobiography, speeches, and other scatterings.

Dorsey was born in 1900, in the west Georgia country town of Villa Rica. He was a child of the children of the black South who were delivered out of bondage into peonage at the end of the Civil War. His father, Thomas Madison Dorsey, was one of those “highly trainable young black men” whom the succoring agencies of church and state hoped to find after the Civil War among the formerly enslaved. Thomas Madison Dorsey graduated from one of the Negro colleges these missionaries helped to start—Augusta Baptist Institute, progenitor of Morehouse—and was ordained a “competent, consecrated Christian leader for the uplift of his race.”

Many of the first slaves had been dispersed among the South Atlantic colonies, where they were half-heartedly proselytized by Anglicans. They were generally as unwarmed by this version of religion that seemed to them to come out of books as they were unwelcomed by its adherents. But Baptists and Methodists, who had entered the colonies as a trickle of radical sectarians, had a strong appeal among the ill-lettered, the landless, and the scorned. Baptists believed, as West Africans did, in adult rebirth and spirit possession. When descendants of Africa encountered these others trembling “in the spirit,” writhing on the floor, jabbering indecipherably, they saw for the first time manifestations in white people of something they could identify as genuine religious expression.

By 1860, nearly all of this country’s four-and-a-half …

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