UM-Dearborn celebrates 80th anniversary of gospel classic “Precious Lord”

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on,
Let me stand
I’m 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

In 1932, Thomas Dorsey, also known as the “Father of Gospel Music” penned one of the most well known gospel songs in the world, a song that has been covered by hundreds of artists and translated into 40 different languages, and is a song that powerfully evokes one’s personal connection with God. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” is a song whose poignant lyricism grew out of personal tragedy for Dorsey, whose wife died during childbirth and his new born son died shortly after. Dorsey’s personal and professional life took a dramatic turn following this tragic incident. What was originally only meant to be a personal plea to God ended up transforming the state of religious music.

2012 marked the 80th anniversary of the classic tune “Precious Lord,” and the University of Michigan-Dearborn held a special lecture and performance on Wednesday night to celebrate the tune and shed light on its continued relevance and resonance within musical and religious culture. Dr. Tammy Kernodle, a music historian, musicologist, and professor at Miami University spoke about the historical significance of the song and its impact on gospel music.

Her lecture focused on the how “Precious Lord” shifted the theological perspective of gospel music, the song’s lasting impact on the gospel performance aesthetic and how the song is a conduit for racial expression.

“As a pianist, I can tell you that “Precious Lord” is one of the hardest songs to play and not because of the notes on the page, but because of the emotion, because of the type of depth one must go through in approaching the song,” said Dr. Kernodle. “It has shaped what I call an orchestral approach to playing music where one must not simply play simplistic notes or chords, but in every way possible bear out the emotion of each lyric.”

Dr. Kernodle discussed how this song is still etched in the contemporary traditions of the black church and that it still “speaks to that organic place that seeks to express that which is too horrific for our minds.” She also expressed how “Precious Lord” articulates the hope of a better day and symbolizes one’s personal relationship with God. The song signaled the birth of gospel music, which is a term Dorsey coined in the early 1920s before it became the commonly used phrase for referring to black religious music.

Dorsey”s famous tune, one of the nearly 1,000 songs he wrote during his lifetime, illustrates the integration of blues and jazz with sacred music. This mixture of secular and sacred musical attributes stems from Dorsey”s previous career as a blues pianist and traveling vaudeville musician with blues icon Ma Rainey. During the early 1920s, Dorsey, who went by the stage name “Georgia Tom” and blues artist Tampa Red become well known for their new pioneering blues style “Hoka Blues,” which was a form of piano and guitar playing.

Dr. Knodle highlighted Dorsey’s secular music background to show how it impacted the establishment of gospel music, and was the foundation for contemporary gospel music, which heavily borrows from secular music.

“The legacy of ‘Precious Lord’ is far reaching and gospel music has moved into a tradition by which very Sunday morning there are people who get up and sing the song. Dorsey left us not just a song, but he left us a blue print of prescription y which we can articulate and internalize our struggle.”

In addition to Dr. Kernodle’s lecture, there were performances by bassist Marion Hayden”s trio, which featured Gayelynn McKinney on drums and Henry Gibson on piano. They played a jazzy rendition of a few Dorsey tunes including the song “I’m going to live the life I sing about.”

There was also a stirring rendition of the classic gospel song by evangelist and UM- Dearborn student Jennifer Futch and her mother evangelist Jeanetta Futch.

The audience was also graced with the presence of Dorsey’s son, Thomas M. Dorsey, who lives in the metro Detroit area. He thanked everyone for coming to the event and was overjoyed at the positive response that his father’s music has received.

Thomas Dorsey’s music will forever be engraved within the scope of gospel music. For those who think Kirk Franklin bridged the gap between secular and sacred music, look up the history of gospel and you’ll see that Dorsey was the first.

“I wanted to get the feeling and the moans and the blues into the songs”— Thomas Dorsey

To read more about Thomas Dorsey, click here.

Below is an excerpt from the film, Say Amen Somebody where Dorsey speaks about writing “Precious Lord”

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