Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Birth of The Hymn “Precious Lord” — Alan Reynolds

There is a story about the Gospel song,  "Precious Lord," which may be a help and comfort for any who are finding these opening days of 2014 hard and difficult.

It was written, words and music, by Thomas A. Dorsey. Unfortunately, many have mistaken the Thomas A. Dorsey, the Gospel Jazz musician of the 1920's and 1930's, with Tommy Dorsey, the swing band leader of the 1930's and 1940's.
Here is the true story: 
Thomas A. Dorsey, who composed the words and music to “Precious Lord, take my hand,” was a piano-playing blues musician in the Chicago area who “got religion.” 

At this time, music in the black church tended to imitate white choirs in white churches. Dorsey claimed “the blues,” for the black church. “Blues” was that combination of white-American and black-African music which we would call “jazz.” But distinct from secular jazz, Dorsey helped in the development of what we might call Gospel Jazz. He became a leader in the music of the black church, his influence lasting from the 1920’s even to the present time, from Ethel Waters to Mahalia Jackson. Most black secular artists, such as Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, or even Ray Charles, got their start in the worship music of the black church.
Let Dorsey himself tell the story of “Precious Lord”:
Back in 1932, I was a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's south side. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn't want to go; Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child, but a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie goodbye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.
However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back.

I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But, eager to get on my way and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.

The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope....

Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words:


People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was “Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.’”

When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that same night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to serve Him anymore or write gospel songs.  I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis.

Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God?  Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died.

From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me, especially one friend. The following Saturday evening he took me up to Maloney's Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows.

I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys.
Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody. Once in my head they just seemed to fall into place: '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.'

The Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power.

And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.

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

When my way grows drear precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry,
Hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall,
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet,
Hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

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
(Posting: Peter, for Alan.)



Peter Black said...

Alan, thank you for sharing so beautifully this story of grace and hope coming from a tragic event in a life. Dorsey's song continues to inspire faith and hope in others, to trust the Lord who brought him through. ~~+~~

fudge4ever said...

I love true stories like this. Thank you for sharing!


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