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 life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall:
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:
homas Dorsey's "Precious Lord" has been called "the greatest
gospel song of all time." People around the world know it, sing it,
and love it because of its profound message of hope and faith. Written
in 1932, it continues to appeal deeply to new generations of
listeners. Though composed by a young African American blues pianist,
the song crosses the lines of race and culture. Everyone from gospel
legend Mahalia Jackson to rock 'n' roll king Elvis Presley has
Like so many great hymns of faith, the song was inspired by a horrific
tragedy in the life of its composer. Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in
rural Georgia in 1899, the son of an itinerant preacher.
By age 12, Dorsey left school to become a professional pianist. He
played at house parties throughout Atlanta's black districts.
In his early 20s, Dorsey settled in Chicago. There he played, sang,
and published blues compositions under the name "Georgia Tom." Music
critic Stephen Calt described Dorsey saying he "ranked as the most
self-conscious, serious, and accomplished blues lyricist of his time."
In 1925 Dorsey married Nettie Harper. A year later, he experienced a
nervous breakdown and was unable to work for two years. To survive,
his wife took a job in a laundry to support them. At the urging of his
sister-in-law, Dorsey attended a church service where he experienced a
spiritual healing. That event, combined with the sudden death of a
young neighbor, prompted Dorsey to commit himself more fully to God
and Christian music. To mark his new life, he wrote his first gospel
song, "If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me."
In 1932 Dorsey accepted an invitation to become choir director of
Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, a position he would hold for nearly
40 years. As the Great Depression wore away at the spirits of
Americans, Dorsey viewed his songwriting as an important ministry. He
believed his songs "lifted people out of the muck and mire of poverty
and gave them ... hope."
In August of '32, Dorsey was scheduled to be the featured soloist at a
large revival meeting in St. Louis. At the time he and his wife were
living in a little apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Nettie was
pregnant with their first child. He kissed her goodbye and made his
way to St. Louis for the revival. The next night, as soon as he
finished playing, a Western Union messenger came up to the stage and
gave Dorsey an urgent telegram. "I ripped open the envelope," he
recounted later, "and pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: 'Your
wife just died.'"
Dorsey believed his songs "lifted people out of the muck and mire of
poverty and gave them hope."
Dorsey remembered the evening as a surreal moment. "People were
happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from
Racing home, he learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. "I swung
between grief and joy," he recalled. "Yet that night, the baby died. I
buried Nettie and our little boy together in the same casket." He
managed to get through the funeral visitation and service. But when it
was all over, he withdrew from family, friends, and even his beloved
music. "I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to
serve him anymore or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to
that jazz world I once knew so well," he said.
In the midst of despair, a friend visited Dorsey and arranged for him
to be left alone in a music room with a piano. "It was quiet; the late
evening sun crept through the curtained windows," Dorsey recalled. For
the first time in many days, he sat at a piano using his fingers to
browse the keys. Soon, the young artist experienced a personal
revival: "I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and
touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I'd never heard or
played before, and words [for "Precious Lord"] came into my headthey
just seemed to fall into place."
"Precious Lord" was an immediate and permanent hit. Dorsey himself
said, "This is the greatest song I have written." He went on to sing
and direct "Precious Lord" at churches and concerts around the world.
To date, the song has been translated into 32 languages.
Dorsey died in January 1993 in Chicago, but his legacy thrives. With
his innovative blending of sacred and secular styles, he is remembered
as the architect of modern gospel music.
This article first appeared in July/August 2003 issue of Today's
Christian. Used by permission of Christianity Today International,
Carol Stream, IL 60188.
Click here to view original article.
- I the Lord thy God will hold thy right
hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee.
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