Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sunday Rerun: "All my work has been from God, for God, and for my people." - Thomas Dorsey

I find it interesting when a person learns to do one thing well, and fascinating when someone can do two things well.  For someone who can do three things well - for example, writing, singing, and performing monologues - we have the example of Garrison Keillor.  There aren't many others like Mr Keillor, the host of "A Prairie Home Companion" on the radio.  

I will bet you a nickel that Mr Keillor has sung the songs of Thomas A. Dorsey on his show.  His later songs, that is.  Thomas A. Dorsey was an interesting man.  

Thomas A. Dorsey
For one thing, he is not to be confused with the big band leader Tommy Dorsey, who gave Sinatra his big break a hundred and ten years ago.  This Thomas A. Dorsey (1899 - 1993) is today known as the father of black gospel music, which would seem to come naturally to someone whose father was a preacher and his mother, a piano teacher.  Starting in the Roaring Twenties, he was part of such bands as the "Wild Cats Jazz Band," and he performed under names such as Barrelhouse Tom and Texas Tommy or Georgia Tom, under which sobriquet he partnered with a fellow named Tampa Red to compose the pretty love ballad "Tight Like That."  He wrote hundreds of such songs.  Local residents who used to listen to The Greaseman on the radio will remember how Grease would use Dorsey's jazzy "Somebody's Been Usin' That Thing" for comedic effect.  

However, Mr Dorsey was also dabbling in gospel music at the same time, performing at the 1930 National Baptist Convention and working as musical director in several churches.  Music, and his religious upbringing, brought the gospel out in him.

And then, in 1932, his wife Nettie died in childbirth.  Compounding the tragedy, the child she bore died two days later.  Out of the anguish of the man who only years before had written ribald barrelhouse blues came the gospel classic "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."  This song was most famous in its version by Mahalia Jackson, and it was the song played at the rally led by Dr Martin Luther King the night before he was assassinated, and the favorite song of President Lyndon Johnson, who requested that it be played at his funeral.

Mr Dorsey also wrote "Peace In the Valley" and many many other songs performed in churches of all faiths the world over.  Rock 'n' roll music has as one of its foundations the gospel music tradition, and in Thomas A. Dorsey we saw the faithful world meeting the secular long before Elvis and Little Richard joined the two.

I keep waiting to hear Paul Harvey tell us that this was the rest of the story, but oh well...

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