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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)

1.

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 In it, Harris has also assembled Dorsey’s own account of his first forty years, pieced together from interviews, an unpublished autobiography, speeches, and other scatterings.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 million black residents were already second, third, and fourth generation Americans. They found their common voice in language they fashioned from what they heard here and from what they remembered from Africa. They made a faith of their own out of the religion they were taught here and the habits of belief that lingered with them after the memory of their original African places was gone. Afro-Christianity fused these fragments of West Africa into an American tribe. For a long time their churches were the only institutions black people made and owned for themselves. For these reasons the church was central to African American life.

After his ordination in 1894, Thomas Madison Dorsey confounded the expectations of his sponsors, the American Home Mission Society, by forgoing a settled pastorate. His travels brought him to Villa Rica, where he met and married Etta Plant Spencer, a widow who had been born into deep country poverty and had improved herself enough to acquire some land, some education, and an organ. Her properties and his profession certified the Dorseys as members of the black elite of Carroll County, Georgia. But these were not enough to spare the head of the house from needing to sharecrop, pastor two churches, and teach school all in the same day to keep his growing family afloat.

His early childhood left behind in Thomas Madison Dorsey’s eldest son, Thomas, the habit of associating music and ministry with status and approbation. But he also learned that his mother’s refinement and his father’s education put together couldn’t support the family. The Dorseys became casualties of the agrarian depression that had settled over the South late in the nineteenth century. In 1908 they moved off their land into Atlanta, where Thomas M. Dorsey tended white people’s grounds and gardens, and never preached again.

His son’s young life came unmoored in the city. When he entered school in Atlanta he was put back into first grade. He was acutely conscious of being on the wrong end of stratified, Atlanta Negro society, felt he was “looked upon as…common…dark-skinned, poor, shabbily-dressed and homely-looking.” He started hanging around music and vaudeville houses on Decatur Street in black Atlanta’s downtown. When he finished fourth grade he was thirteen years old. He left school and made the theaters his classrooms, where he studied piano players and set about learning to play. He taught himself to read and write music from books. He had extraordinary facility, the kind of ear and memory that enabled him to hear something once and then reproduce it exactly. It was no empty boast for Thomas A. Dorsey later to say that he had made himself an accomplished musician when he was fourteen.

In those days piano players were functional equivalents of jukeboxes or record players. Dorsey played wherever he could, and before long found favor around town, as much for his quiet touch as for his precocious, idiomatic command of blues songs and popular standards. When he was fifteen, he began to think of himself as a working musician, albeit one whose services could be had for pocket change, “all the food [he] could eat, all the liquor [he] could drink, and a good looking woman to fan [him].” He already considered himself a star in the dim little firmament of Atlanta’s rent-party piano players, and felt he had exhausted all local possibilities.

In 1916 Dorsey got a job at a Philadelphia shipyard by answering one of the advertisements posted in those days on billboards above street corners in Atlanta, enticing thousands to leave the South in this earliest of the several cycles of black migration. Dorsey set out for Philadelphia by way of Chicago, where his uncle lived, and which was then bustling with upsouth traffic. Once he landed in Chicago, Dorsey never willingly left it for long.

He made a niche in its after-hours “buffet houses,” where, as in Atlanta, the relative subtleties of his style had the practical advantage of not annoying the neighbors enough to provoke them into calling the police. He became known around these establishments as “the whispering piano player.” His small successes reinforced his confidence. He recognized that his ability to elaborate on “popular numbers and drag them out” could be the basis of a commercial blues style.

Dorsey was a student of his game even before it had rules. The best paying jobs were in structured settings like bands and theaters, where players needed written parts, and he recognized the need for someone to prepare and arrange their music. That was “where the money was.” In 1920, he enrolled at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging, right on time for the market that a growing black audience had suddenly opened for the black blues.

Crazy Blues,” a record by Mamie Smith, had already alerted the white men who were making up the new recording industry as they went along that the “race” market was worth stooping to conquer. Smith was a vaudeville singer; and her accompanists were New York musicians already too sophisticated to be easy with the commanding chords and propulsive rhythms of the genuine blues. All the same, far from authenticity though it was, “Crazy Blues” was a huge success and demonstrated how eager black Americans were for a popular culture that sounded like their own. Dorsey saw blues singers “sweeping the country” and songwriters “popping up like pop corn.” In 1920 he copyrighted his first song, “If You Don’t Believe I’m Leaving, You Can Count the Days I’m Gone.”

Several months later his uncle invited him to the National—that is, black—Baptist Convention. The convention was a trade show lively with commerce and entertainment. There, sitting in the back of a large auditorium, Thomas A. Dorsey was unexpectedly borne to Jesus by Rev. A. W. Nix, a singing evangelist who was performing a song called “I Do, Don’t You” to promote a new hymnal that black Baptists were offering for sale. Nix was using the rhythm-bending, melody-slurring, hard song-selling of Dorsey’s own secular trade to make congregants weary of decorum feel free to jump and shout. The force of revelation struck him like a falling tree:

My heart was [then] 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.

Within a year he had written and registered several religious songs, and become director of music at a small migrant Baptist church. But before long he succumbed to the allure of forty dollars a week, and took a job with a band called the “Whispering Syncopators,” where he stayed until its other members threw him over for a better-known piano player.

In 1923, Columbia released Bessie Smith’s first record. “Downhearted Blues” sold three quarters of a million copies: by Harris’s estimate a fifth of all the “race” records purchased that year. The industry had until then considered Bessie Smith too country to sell; her record was a shocking demonstration of the raw appeal of southern music to black consumers. The feverish growth of the record industry was creating more demand for “product” to sell than the talent in New York could supply. Dorsey was in Chicago, the industry’s second city, and alert to his chance. He copyrighted seven songs: three of these were recorded—one, “Riverside Blues,” by the famous King Oliver—and another was sold to a major publishing house.

He began arranging music and coaching singers for a talent scout who “found” performers like Ma Rainey and sold them to record companies like Paramount, along with a repertory of Dorsey’s songs. Ma Rainey was the original show-business blues singer. Dorsey had seen her perform when he was a boy in Atlanta. Now she was plying her hard southern singing along the black theater circuit in cities upsouth and down. Rainey hired Dorsey to be her accompanist and to assemble, organize, and direct her “Wild Cats Jazz Band.”

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