Tonight our band is going to perform in one of the most prestigious gospel venues around our region—the American Gospel Quartet Convention, here in Birmingham. Here many of the great African American gospel groups gather to sing, worship and honor fellow performers each year. It’s meeting at the More Than Conquerors Church in Birmingham. I like the names a lot of the independent churches give themselves. It says something about “who we want to be.” I heard about a midwestern church that actually named itself “Christ Memorial Church.” What in the WORLD! Ain’t you people heard about Easter???!!!!
Anyway, many of the greats of gospel have played here over the years—the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Fairfield Four (remember the quartet singing in “O Brother Where Art Thou” when the boys are about to meet their maker at the end of a rope?) Gospel and Blues have often conflicted with each other. Some in the church even disapproved of the blues, feeling that it conflicted with the joy of the gospel. I read once that the magnificent Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972, refused to sing the blues. “’Blues are the songs of despair,’ she declared. ‘Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.’”
Mahalia Jackson may be one of the greatest singers EVER. Her rendition of the song of the day I posted today, “Precious Lord,” plays at the Lorraine Motel while you stand at the spot where Martin Luther King died, at least it did when I visited, and the tearful experience I had there inspired my song “Lorraine.” I have to gently disagree, though. The blues, they are Bible songs, too, if we read the Psalms right. There is a whole section scholars call, “Psalms of Lament.” Over sixty of the psalms are considered “laments,” mingling despair and hope as a prayer calling on God for help. Somehow, to win victory by denial is a diminishment of the spiritual journey.
Still, the fork gospel music became offers a place of respite, joy, and at least a chance to voice the vision of victory. Thomas Dorsey, the author of “Precious Lord,” embodied this contradiction and conflict between blues and gospel. Son of a pastor, he rebelled against his raising early in life and went to Chicago in the early blues scene and gained some renown under the name “Georgia Tom,” but he struggled financially and spiritually.
“Precious Lord’ was born out of his own tragedy. The preacher’s kid who had the foundation, whose parents prayed for him, who drifted away, into the nightclub world and secular success, then, two mental breakdowns, and finally, surrender to the gospel ministry and a long, long career at the famous Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago nevertheless suffered terribly.
In 1932, in the midst of his transition back into gospel for good, his wife Nettie died during childbirth, along with their firstborn, Thomas Andrew, Jr., who died the next day. Thomas was away at a gospel meeting, and got the news. Out of the anguish of that song came “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was the end of his blues singing for good, oddly enough.
His gospel greatness came out of that crucible of suffering. There is no guarantee about life. If the Bible is any guide, the blues will be the way to Gospel Joy. They are different parts of the same journey. I hope you’ll enjoy a listen to a version of Dorsey’s song I recorded with my bandmate, Nancy Womble of Shades Mountain Air. We recorded it at my house, with me playing bass, guitar and mandolin and simply a lead vocal. It is spare, recalling the hallowed, bluesy, holy crucible of Tom Dorsey’s suffering. Ann Lamotte says there really are only two kinds of prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “help me, help me, help me.” One is gospel, the other blues…