Easter Flowers for Composer and Musician Thomas A. Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music” (LISTEN)

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)

On Easter Sunday, GBN celebrates Thomas A. Dorsey, who once worked as Ma Rainey‘s pianist and musical director, and wrote and sang blues songs as the “Georgia Tom” half of the Georgia Tom and Tampa Red duo before revolutionizing gospel music by integrating the feeling of the blues into sacred songs.

To read about Dorsey, read on. To hear about him, press PLAY:

[You can subscribe to the Good Black News Daily Drop Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, rss.com or create your own RSS Feed. Or listen every day here on the main page. Full transcript below]:

Hey, this is Lori Lakin Hutcherson, founder and editor in chief of goodblacknews.org, here to share with you a daily drop of Good Black News for Sunday, April 17, 2022, based on the “A Year of Good Black News Page-A-Day Calendar” published by Workman Publishing.

[Cue “Roll Jordan Roll” by the Fisk Jubilee Quartet]

Gospel music existed before Georgia native Thomas Dorsey turned his ear and pen to it, but it was never the same after.

Working most famously as the piano player and musical director for blues legend Gertrude “Ma” Rainey in the 1920s under the moniker “Georgia Tom.” Despite this success, Dorsey fell into a prolonged period of depression for almost two years and barely performed.

In 1928, Dorsey attended a spirited church service where he claimed a minister pulled a live serpent from his throat. From that point on, Dorsey vowed to dedicate himself to composing gospel music. Dorsey wrote “If You See My Savior” in honor of a friend who passed, which combined a blues feeling into a more traditional hymnal structure:

[Excerpt of “If You See My Savior”]

Dorsey tried to sell his new sacred songs directly to publishers and churches but initially had no luck and returned to writing the blues. With duet partner Tampa Red, as “Georgia Tom” Dorsey had a big hit in 1928, selling over seven million copies of “It’s Tight Like That”:

[Excerpt of “It’s Tight Like That”]

This type of “dirty blues” or “Hokum” songs proved to be popular and the duo recorded and performed for years until Dorsey finally turned to gospel music for good.

He formed a gospel blues choir in Chicago, which helped the new style catch on, and soon became the musical director for Pilgrim Baptist Church and running his own music publishing company.

Dorsey worked with a young Mahalia Jackson in the late 1920s and originally composed for Jackson what became a beloved song not only in gospel blues circles, but country & western as well.

[Excerpt of “Peace in the Valley” by Red Foley & the Sunshine Boys]

“Peace in the Valley” has been recorded by over the decades by artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Red Foley & the Sunshine Boys, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.

And while he was still in his gospel group in the 1960s, Sam Cooke and his Soul Stirrers took their turn in the valley as well:

[Excerpt of “Peace in the Valley” by Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers]

In Dorsey’s lifetime, which was long – he lived to 93 – Dorsey composed over 3,000 songs, including the one Martin Luther King, Jr. said was his favorite, the one Mahalia Jackson ended up singing at his funeral, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”:

[Excerpt of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”]

Dorsey’s songs changed the sound of sacred music and influenced generations to come, which is why he is often called “The Father of Gospel Music.”

Dorsey has been inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored Dorsey by adding his album Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey, to the United States National Recording Registry.

To learn more about Thomas Dorsey, watch the 1982 musical documentary Say Amen, Somebody, currently available on YouTube and DVD, check out his collection of papers archived at Fisk University, read 1994’s The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris, which you can borrow from the Internet Archive, and 2015’s Anointed to Sing the Gospel: The Levitical Legacy of Thomas A. Dorsey by Kathryn B. Kemp.

You can also watch 2005’s The Story of Gospel Music documentary, which is currently available on DVD.

And every year, Dorsey’s hometown of Villa Rica, Georgia holds an annual Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace Heritage Festival of gospel music. This year’s will be held on June 25thand 26th.

Links to these sources and more are provided in today’s show notes and the episode’s full transcript posted on goodblacknews.org.

And before we go, let’s hear a clip of Thomas Dorsey himself speaking on the meaning of gospel:

“Down through the ages gospel – what? What did they say was? You mean to tell me you don’t know that good news? On down to the ages, gospel was good news. Now if you don’t know that I’ll rush you out of here myself.”

This has been a daily drop of Good Black News, written, produced and hosted by yours truly, Lori Lakin Hutcherson. Intro and outro beats provided by freebeats.io and produced by White Hot.

“Roll Jordan Roll” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers is in the Public Domain.

Excerpts of songs composed by Thomas A. Dorsey are included under Fair Use.

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