On a Sunday designated as “Colored Night” in 1911 Georgia, a young black boy named Thomas Andrew Dorsey attended a revival meeting, singing in the hastily assembled choir around the campfire. That experience made a lasting impression on him and started him on a journey to becoming the Father of Gospel Music.
As a boy, he traveled with his father, an itinerant Baptist preacher and played the pump organ for the campfire revival meetings. After moving to Atlanta at age 11, he became acquainted with vaudeville, so that by the time he settled in Chicago in 1916 he was an experienced dance pianist. From 1923-26 he toured with Ma Rainey as a blues pianist — but was also writing religious music along the way, never forgetting the power and excitement he experienced in those campfire revival meetings as a child and when he attended a meeting of the National Baptist Convention in 1921 and heard Reverend A.W. Nix electrify the audience with the hymn “I Do, Don’t You?” Dorsey decided right then he would be a gospel singer and he wrote his first song, “If I Don’t Get There.” He is credited with being the first person to use the term “gospel song” speaking of the church songs created initially in black folk churches. He said, “If I could get into the gospel songs the feeling and the pathos and the moans and the blues, that [would get] me over.”
After Emancipation, revival meetings became fledgling black folk churches and then solid urban churches as hundreds of thousands moved North, where all black music — spiritual traditions, dance music and the blues — began flowing freely in and out, making a new concoction, with a few text changes, of course. Dorsey, with firsthand experience in all of it, was in the middle of brewing that perfect storm. His timing couldn’t be better.
Dorsey began “peddling” his songs from church to church in Chicago, through the Midwest and the South, hiring male singers to perform to his accompaniment. Using a piano was unique for this period. A few years later, Dorsey innovated further when he organized the first female gospel quartet in history to sing his songs.
The Great Depression caused Dorsey’s decision to move into religious music exclusively, and he became a minor celebrity in 1930 when one of his songs, “If You See My Saviour,” “took the audience by storm” at the National Baptist Convention in Chicago. In 1931, with Theodore Frye at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, he created the world’s first gospel chorus, also creating the Chicago Gospel Choral Union, Inc with Frye and Lewis Butts.
In 1932, he co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Inc. with gospel singer Sallie Martin, and the same year opened the Dorsey House of Music, the first publishing company founded for the sole purpose of selling the music of black gospel composers.
He succeeded in encapsulating the power of the spirituals he experienced in the campfire revival
meetings as a boy, the excitement of secular dance music, and the depth of the blues into this new “gospel” music. Nothing was left out — the musical practices of the slave “invisible church”: hand clapping, foot stomping, call-and-response, rhythmic complexities, persistent beat, melodic improvisation, heterophonic textures, percussive accompaniments and ring shouts; the rhythmic intensity of secular dance music; and the sacred counterpart of the blues, distinguished only by religious rather than secular text with the bent-note scale, duple meters, syncopation and musical density — all of which you could find evolving in full force in black churches on any given Sunday.
He named this fresh river of music he was experiencing, and jumped in, writing nearly a thousand songs, publishing more than half of them. His best known songs are: Precious Lord, Take My Hand (which was translated into more than fifty languages), When I’ve Done My Best, Hide Me in Thy Bosom, Search Me, Lord, and There’ll Be Peace In The Valley.
Other Early Black Gospel Composers:
Lucie Campbell (1885-1963) first copyrighted song 1905; Something Within, I Need Thee Every Hour, The Lord is My Sheperd, He Understands, He’ll Say Well Done.
Martin (1896-1988) Just a Closer Walk with Thee
William Herbert Brewster, Sr (1897-1987) credited with being first to popularize the use of triplets in gospel songs – Surely God is Able; distinctive for melismatic cadenzas, vivid biblical images, and sharp tempo changes How I Got Over, Just Over the Hill, and Move on Up a Little Higher.
Roberta Martin (1907-1969) 1936 Roberta Martin Singers – integrating male and female singers; 1939 Roberta Martin Studio of Music
Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. 1993.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans A History. Third Edition. 1997.
Eliyora Entertainment LLC. Ever Entertainment. © Paradunai LLC. All international rights reserved. All trademarks property of Paradunai LLC. All personas, concepts and original songs created and performed by Sherese Chrétien.