The Father of Gospel Blues
THE FATHER OF GOSPEL BLUES
Little nine year old Tommie and his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia from the small town of Villa Rica, Georgia in 1908. Tommy was demoted a grade in school and teased by the other children. He felt alienated from his school and also the black Baptist church where his daddy was the pastor and mamma was the pianist.
He spent the afternoons and evenings watching the vaudeville performances where he saw such well known blues artists as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. At age eleven he dropped out of school and took a job at the theater selling soda pop.
He was determined to become famous like Ma Rainey so he learned to play the piano and teaching himself to read music.
At age seventeen Tom moved to Chicago and became quite successful as a blues piano player and singer in the backroom bars during the prohibition era. He took the professional name of Georgia Tom.
Tom struggled with his conscience over playing the “world’s music.” His mother was always admonishing him that he should devote himself to composing and playing for the Lord. His struggle became so intense that he had a nervous breakdown and had to take two years off and move back to Atlanta to recover.
Sufficiently rested and recovered, Georgia Tom returned to Chicago and began to play for Ma Rainey and her jazz band. However, it was only a matter of time before he once again had a nervous breakdown and had to stop singing in the the bars of Chicago.
He soon determined to devote his music totally to the Lord. He began composing and singing gospel music using the blues style of music.
To his disappointment, many of the main stream churches refused to allow him to return because his music sounded too much like the world’s music. So he returned to the Chicago bars to earn enough money to survive.
Tom married and was expecting his first child within a year. He continued to play both in churches and bars. It was while he was in St. Louis preparing for a concert in a church that he received a telegram informing him that his wife had died during childbirth. He returned to Chicago in time to hold his newborn son but the child died within a few hours.
It was at that moment that he took the vow to devote his music totally to the Lord seriously. It was also during his grief that he composed these words:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, help me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Thru the storm, thru the night,
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.
Thomas Dorsey went on to compose nearly 1000 songs, all gospel with a blues style. He died in 1993 at the age of 96. He had earned the title of “The Father of Gospel Blues.”