‘Barrelhouse Tommy’ was famous for raunchy records he made in the 1920s. Thomas A. Dorsey wrote “Precious Lord”, one of the most popular and powerful hymns of all time. Both styles came from the same man at opposite poles of his life. Dorsey combined sacred lyrics and secular style in a new kind of church music. His American black gospel was a musical revolution. We hear from gospel artist Walter Hawkins, and the music of Thomas Dorsey as sung by Kansas City Kitty, Mahalia Jackson, and Elvis Presley.
Segment production: Jacquie Gales Webb

Sound Clips

Audio - Thomas A. Dorsey talks about his increased ouput as a composer

Audio - Dorsey was the first to make a market for gospel music

Audio - Dorsey sings and speaks in George Niremburg's film Say Amen, Somebody

Listen to Part 4

In George T. Nieremberg’s 1983 documentary “Say Amen Somebody”, one of the reigning matriarch’s of Gospel singing Willa Mae Ford says of Thomas A. Dorsey, “He took the church music, spirituals and hymns and pepped them up and put a rhythm to them and called it ‘Gospel’. Before Mr. Dorsey they didn’t call me a Gospel singer. I was just a spiritual singer, a revival worker.”

Gospel developed as a musical genre in America in the first half of the 20th century, when musicians began to infuse ‘church music’ with the rhythms of jazz and blues that were in the air. The first composer to successfully write and publish songs in the genre was Thomas A. Dorsey, who was born in Villa Rica, Georgia in 1899. After achieving considerable success as a blues piano player in the 1920s, Dorsey turned to writing and publishing sacred music. In 1930 he wrote, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, one of the most frequently recorded Gospel hymns in history. It was natural that Dorsey would interpret his sacred songs with the same jazz rhythm and blues feeling he had used successfully in his secular music. This powerful combination of sacred and secular styles created a revolution in music and Dorsey was at the heart of it.

As an old man, Thomas A. Dorsey remarked on his life in music, “I worked in the circus for a while as a water boy, but I didn’t become caught up in show business until I started selling soda pop at the 81 Theatre (in Atlanta) — that’s where I heard people like Bessie Smith doing those blues numbers, and shaking everything they had.” It was the death of Dorsey’s wife and child in 1930 that made him turn away from his career as a bluesman to writing hymns. He said, “I was doing alright for myself but the voice of God whispered, ‘You need to change a little’.”

Through the life story and musical legacy of Thomas A. Dorsey, we will explore the evolution of Gospel music in the 1930s, and the social context in which it developed. We will examine how Dorsey’s combination of jazz and blues with sacred music influenced the popularity of the genre, propelled the Gospel sound from churches into the marketplace, and created a new music industry. We will look at the impact that technology and economic success had on the genre and how it changed the music.

We will track this new musical genre as it takes on a life of its own, attracts adherents and practitioners across the country, and gives rise to some of popular music's most enduring talents.

Humanities Themes

· The development of Gospel music in its historical/cultural context.
· The role of composer Thomas A. Dorsey in the development of Gospel music.
· How did black and white populations react to Gospel music in its early development? Did class and economic status, as well as race, influence acceptance or rejection of the new Gospel sound?
· Themes in early Gospel hymns as they reflect what was happening in society in the 1930s — upheaval, dislocation, nation-wide poverty in the Great Depression.
· Gospel music developed the talents of Aretha Franklin, Al Green and other pop singers who would emerge in the mid 20th century, how does it continue to influence American popular music.
· The phenomenon of the Gospel hymn “Precious Lord” illustrates the importance of radio in disseminating new styles of music.
· The introduction of amplified instruments and drums in churches. How jazz rhythms were transformed from being perceived as “the Devil’s music” in the 1920s to legitimate sacred music with the new Gospel sound.


Pre-Gospel black sacred music tradition in America — including the Jubilee Singers and Spirituals evolved from slave work songs, i.e. “Old Ship of Zion”.

Thomas A. Dorsey was blues singer Ma Rainey’s piano accompanist and traveled the rural south with her Rabbit Foot Minstrel show in 1924, performing outdoors in tents. What were similarities/differences in performance styles in traveling minstrel shows and revival tent meetings? How was music in these two venues alike/unlike? Did Gospel music evolve out of these two varieties of tent shows in the rural south in the 20s?

Archival recordings of early black Gospel groups in the 1930s, including Mitchell’s Christian Singers demonstrate how jazz musicians such as the white musicians in the Bob Crosby Band were influenced by the performance styles and song choices of early Gospel innovators.

How was Thomas A. Dorsey able to overcome criticism from both black and white church-goers that the new Gospel sound he created was too racy for ‘church music’?

In 1933 Thomas A. Dorsey founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which is still active today. How did this organization help legitimize the Gospel sound? Does it keep the old Gospel traditions alive today or has it become commercialized?

Economics of early Gospel music — examine the tension between the sense of mission in “spreading the word of the Gospels” through Gospel music versus performing sacred music for economic gain and personal stardom.

Technology influences the acceptance of Gospel music via Gospel radio stations like WOAN in Tennessee founded in 1922.

How is Gospel music essentially different from other forms of American music? Do Gospel hymns become part of the public domain more quickly than secular music? Do Gospel composers attach less personal ownership to their compositions?

Where can Thomas Dorsey’s influence be heard in Gospel music today?

Overview and Background:

Thomas A. Dorsey learned his religion from his Baptist minister father and piano from his music teacher mother in Villa Rica, Georgia, where he was born July 1, 1899. He came under the influence of a local blues pianist when they moved to Atlanta in 1910.

He and his family relocated to Chicago during World War I where they joined the Pilgrim Baptist Church, and he studied at the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging and became an agent for Paramount Records.

Dorsey began his musical career known as “Georgia Tom,” playing barrelhouse piano in one of Al Capone’s Chicago speakeasies and leading Ma Rainey’s Jazz Band. He played with Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels and eventually married Nettie, her dresser. Dorsey hooked up with slide guitarist Hudson Tampa Red Whittaker with whom he recorded the best selling blues hit, "Tight Like That," in 1928 and wrote more than 460 rhythm and blues and jazz songs.

Discouraged by his own efforts to publish and sell his songs through the old method of peddled song sheets, and dissatisfied with the treatment given composers of race music by the music publishing industry, Dorsey became the first independent publisher of black Gospel music with the establishment of The Dorsey House of Music in Chicago in 1932.

He also founded and became the President of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He wrote his classic and most famous song, "Precious Lord" in grief following the death of his first wife and child in childbirth in 1930.

This song has been recorded by such diverse artists as Mahalia Jackson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Elvis Presley, and was the favorite Gospel song of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who asked that it be sung at the rally he led the night before his assassination, and of President Lyndon B. Johnson who requested that it be sung at his funeral.

Almost equally well known is his "Peace in the Valley," which he wrote for Mahalia Jackson in 1937. In October of 1979, he was the first black elected to the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame.

In September 1981, his native Georgia honored him with election to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame; in March 1982, he was the first black elected to the Gospel Music Association's Living Hall of Fame; in August 1982, the Thomas A. Dorsey Archives were opened at Fisk University where his collection joined those of W. C. Handy, George Gershwin, and the Jubilee Singers.

Summing up his life, he says all his work has been “from God, for God, and for his people”. (Source: Southern Music in the 20th Century at www.southernmusic.net)

Interview Subjects:

Charles Wolfe, scholar

Jacquie Gales Webb, independent radio producer, Gospel disc jockey, Washington, DC.

Bernice Regan Johnson, PhD, Anthropologist and leader of group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock”.

Albertina Walker, the “Queen of Gospel.” Founded The Caravans, where Shirley Caesar got her start.

Peter Guralnick, writer.

George T. Nierenberg, filmmaker. “Say Amen Somebody”

Historic Recordings:

Spirituals from folklorist John Lomax

Black Gospel groups from the 1930s including the Golden Gates and Mitchell’s Christian Singers.

Ma Rainey’s band when Dorsey was a member.

“Tight Like That” by Tampa Red Whittaker and Thomas A. Dorsey

“Peace in the Valley” by Mahalia Jackson

Medley of different versions of Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” as performed by:

Blind Boys of Alabama

Aretha Franklin

Al Green

Harlem Gospel Singers

B.B. King

Resources: Bibliography, Discography, and Archival:


Country Music USA by Bill Malone

Honky Tonk Gospel by Tom Wilmeth

Finding Her Voice by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert Oremann

Happy in the Service of the Lord by Kip Lornell

The Gospel Sound by Tony Heilbut

They Heard Georgia Singing by Zell Miller

The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris


Country Music Hall of Fame Archive

Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Macon, GA


Say Amen Somebody by George Nierenberg


Southern Music in the 20th Century: www.southernmusic.net

National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses: www.ncgcc.com

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