Hymn History

Precious Lord Take My Hand

“The Precious Lord Story and Gospel Songs” By Thomas A. Dorsey

In 1921 at the National Baptist Convention in Chicago, I heard a Professor Nix and saw him raise that huge audience singing a religious song, “I Do, Don’t You.” I was converted in that meeting and said that is the type of music I would like to do. At that time I was a jazz musician playing piano in wine rooms and buffet flats up and down State Street.

There were no gospel songs then, they were called evangelistic songs. After writing three or four songs of this kind, the National Baptist Publishing Board published two of my songs, one in the Gospel book and the other in the Baptist Hymnal which was circulated in a big way nationally and is still being circulated to this day.

In the early 1920′s, I coined the words “Gospel Songs” after listening to a group of five people on Sunday morning on the far south side of Chicago. This was the first I heard of Gospel Choir. After dedicating my all writing Gospel Songs I took a position playing at a little Baptist Church in South Chicago, but I would still help the “jazz boys” out now and then until I got a firm footing in gospel songs.

I began to write more prolifically, but I didn’t have any money to get the songs printed. In 1926 I was ill for about a year. In that interim I wrote “Some Day Somewhere” and “If You See My Savior.” I borrowed $5.00 and bought 500 one-cent stamps and sent out 500 copies of these songs to churches throughout the country by 2nd class mail which cost only 1 cent in those days. It was three years before I got one single order. I felt like going back to the jazz field of music. The flower of dawn blossomed in 1930 when the National Baptist Convention met at their Jubilee Session at Chicago’s Coliseum. There was a girl from St. Louis laying there in the aisles singing “If You See My Savior Tell Him That You Saw Me.”

There I met many of the gospel greats and they set up a filed of distribution for Gospel Songs. I met many of the religious singers form other parts of the country, and at this convention they let me set up a booth to sell my music. My gospel songs were on the way.

I then met Magnolia Lewis Butts who organized a gospel choir at Metropolitan Community Church in Chicago. Along with Theodore R. Frye, Sallie Martin, Marion Pairs and many others who had begun to organize Gospel Choirs, we organized “THE NATIONAL CONVENTION OF GOSPEL CHOIRS AND CHORUSES, INC. at Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1932, where I have been the director of the Pilgrim Gospel Choir. Gospel Choirs, Choruses and groups began to organize throughout the country. This made a lucrative filed and created an urgent need or demand for gospel song sheets. I was not in business and gospel songs were firmly established and were here to stay.

Since the late 1920′s, in the incipiency of this new creation, the awareness of the people became more evident of the new lift, rhythm and animated movement in new type of church music, and it was recorded as an overwhelming success. We needed more production and I began to write more and more gospel songs and hundreds of songs fell from my pen.

I opened my office headquarters in my bedroom where I lived with my first wife, Nettie, on East 40th Street in Chicago. I was chosen or destined to do this work from creation. If there is such a thing as re-incarnation, I’ve been on earth before and resumed work where I left off at the previous transition.

I traveled over the country in a 1930 Ford Car. I didn’t have any money for train fare – that was out. But later on tragedy struck. In August of 1932 I had the greatest shock of my young life just as things began to look promising for a great future. I left home for St. Louis, MO. I left my wife who was soon to become a mother. I got my clothing, got into my car with E.C. Davis, another gospel song aspirant and we started for St. Louis to sing in a revival meeting. I turned and went back to my home, went into the room, my wife was asleep, I did not awake her or disturb her sleep. I eased my music case out and went back to the car. The man that was going with me changed his mind and said “I’m not going, drop me out at the corner.” So I did and went on alone. The next night in St. Louis while I was singing in the meeting a boy brought me a telegram to the church. I opened it and it read: “Your wife just died.” I could not cry out in the meeting, but soon as I could get out I called my home in Chicago and all I could hear them say was “Nettie is dead, Nettie is dead”.

Gus Evans who was a pastor in Memphis, Tenn. consented to drive me to Chicago. We arrived the next morning. I rushed into the house. They had not moved the body of my wife but would not let me see her. I had a fine healthy looking baby boy, but that night the baby died. Although he got only a faint glimpse of the light of day, and a few short breathes of life, I gave him a name, Thomas A. Dorsey, Jr.

After putting my wife and baby away in the same casket I began to feel that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve him anymore or write any more gospel songs. I wanted to return back to the jazz world that I once knew so well before. Then a voice spoke to me and said: “You are not alone. I tried to speak to you before, it was you that should have gotten out of the care and not gone to St. Louis instead of the other man that got out and stayed at home. I said “Thank you Lord. I understand, I’ll never make that same mistake again.” Everyone was so kind to me in these sad hours. The next Saturday night Professor Theodore R. Frye and I went up to the Madam Malone’s Poro College which had beautiful and comfortable music room-well equipped and a good piano.

There in my solitude, I began to browse over the keys like a gentle herd pasturing on tender turf. Something happened to me there. I had a strange feeling inside. A sudden calm a quiet stillness. As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock.

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.

I wanted to change it to Blessed Lord, Take My Hand, but Professor Frye said “No, call him Precious Lord.” This is the greatest song I have written out of near four hundred, exceeding the new two hundred blues and jazz songs written in my sinful days. “Precious Lord” has been translated into more than thirty-two different languages and republished in many foreign countries.

I have sung and directed this song in Paris, London, Rome, Athens, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem. It was well accepted when I was in the West Indies Islands. It has been recorded by such top artists as: Redd Foley, Eddie Arnold, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, Fred Wareing and many other top stars.

The price exacted for “Precious Lord” was very high. The grief, the sorrow, the loneliness, the lost, the uncertainty of the future, but I was requited or repaid with double dividends and compound interest. The Lord blessed me with another wife Kathryn Dorsey, and two fine children, Thomas Dorsey and Doris M. Dorsey, and a grandson, Thomas A. Dorsey, III. I am happy.

© 1998 National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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