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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, July 04, 2009


Georgia Tom, aka Thomas Dorsey, would have been 110 on July 1st. Here's his entry from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Dorsey, Thomas A. [1899 - 1993]
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in tiny Villa Rica, Georgia on July 1, 1899, the song of a Baptist preacher. As a child he worked as a circus water boy, moved to Atlanta at age 11, started selling soda pop at the city’s 81 Theatre and there encountered the likes of Bessie Smith ‘doing those blues numbers and shaking everything they had.’ He became a successful vaudeville pianist, moved to Chicago in 1916, kept his options open by joining the Pilgrim Baptist Church and studying at the Chicago School of Composition and Music. He was Ma Rainey’s pianist and bandleader - and travelled the south with her Rabbit Foot Minstrel show - from 1924 to 1928. He had begun to write songs, especially for Paramount and Brunswick/Vocalion Records and was a staff arranger for the Chicago Music Publishing Company. As Georgia Tom, he and Tampa Red had the biggest hit of 1928 with the hokum’n’innuendo of ‘It’s Tight Like That’, followed by more in the same vein both with Tampa Red and with BIG BILL BROONZY, and in the 1930s worked with many others including MEMPHIS MINNIE.

At the same time, he was active in performing church music, and in 1930, in the middle of playing a church concert, Dorsey received a telegram reading ‘Hurry home. Your wife is very sick. She is going to have the baby’; he telephoned back to be told that she was dead; the baby died shortly after. This made him turn away from his career as a bluesman to writing hymns, though only after resisting the impulse to do the opposite. He felt that ‘God had been unfair’ and wanted to plunge back fully into the secular blues; but his turmoil resolved itself the other way and he was able to say afterwards: ‘I was doing alright for myself but the voice of God whispered, “You need to change a little”.’ Though influenced by composer C.H.Tindley (who founded the Tindley Methodist Church, Philadelphia, where Bessie Smith is buried), Dorsey brought to his sacred songs blues feeling and syncopation, and this powerful combination of styles created the musical revolution that was modern gospel music. He became the first black publisher as well as composer of songs in the genre, a prolific writer and can be said to have been a shaping force in African-American consciousness.

In 1933 he founded the still-active National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, and he composed over 500 published songs, among them the best-loved and most widely recorded in the entire gospel repertoire, including ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ (aka ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’) and ‘Peace in the Valley’, propelled to popularity partly by the new power of radio and partly by a working alliance with Mahalia Jackson, whom he’d first met in 1929. He became her musical advisor and accompanist from 1937 to 1946, and she sang his songs in church programs and at conventions, promoting his compositions. Her signature song became ‘Precious Lord Take My Hand’ (which she would eventually sing at Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta in 1968).

The new style of Dorsey’s religious songs was not without controversy, though. In ALAN LOMAX’s The Land Where The Blues Began, he deplores these new me-me-me gospel songs of the ’40s as against the old spirituals of an earlier era, and deplores Dorsey’s ‘Precious Lord Take My Hand’ especially. He says the new songs elevated the preacher to a new primacy over the congregation that suppressed the previous democracy of worship (though it certainly wasn’t every church that had an all-participating congregation before the Dorsey generation came along).

The pull between secular and religious music was ever-present in Dorsey’s life, as for so many of the singers of the pre-war era, and it is unsurprising that his influence on the music world Bob Dylan inherited should be detectable on both sides of that divide. Today it would be impossible to read these four consecutive lines from Georgia Tom’s 1928 ‘Grievin’ Me Blues’ without being reminded of Dylan’s mid-1960s work; re-formulated, they infuse at least the chorus of ‘Tombstone Blues’, the opening of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and something of the spirit of both:

‘Daddy’s got the washboard, mama’s got the tub
Sister’s got the liquor and brother’s got the jug
My water-pipe’s all rusted, water’s running cold
Someone’s in the basement trying to find the hole.’

Of course, only something of the spirit of the Dylan lines is there - the upbeat rhythmic facility - because the innovative transformation Dylan makes is via the context in which he places his own so-similar lines. The context removes the tone of jolly family just-folksiness, replacing it with an opposite consciousness: that of the alienated loner at odds with, yet surrounded by, people obdurately going about their own incomprehensible business and, ‘in the basement’, communing with their own drug-paranoia.

In fact, though, the Dorsey of this period wasn’t really ‘just-folksy’ at all but a cool, sly, city dude. There’s a wonderful photograph of him, republished in Paul Oliver’s book The Story of the Blues, in which, dressed sharper than we’ll ever be, he’s cupping his hands to light a cigarette. His eyes, feral and knowing, pierce the camera-lens: except for the fact that he’s black, it’s a shot the Hollywood of ’40s film noir would have killed for [reproduced above].

On the religious side, no-one interested in popular or gospel music could have avoided the impact of Thomas A. Dorsey’s work, and Dylan’s own gospel compositions would have been different had Dorsey’s not existed. More specifically, Dylan must have grown up knowing the early 1950s hit version of ‘Peace in the Valley’ by white artist Red Foley (which was a hit with black audiences too), and then the immaculate and gloweringly powerful ELVIS PRESLEY recordings of ‘Peace in the Valley’ and ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’ from 1957. Presley’s are classic soul-in-torment versions, and his ‘Peace In The Valley’ recognises the song’s genius: indeed makes it a work of darker genius, emphasising the intense, gothic spookiness of the lyrics, in which, for instance, ‘the night is as black as the sea’. Its pinnacle is this re-statement of the biblical vision of the peaceable kingdom:

‘Well the bear will be gentle and the wolves will be tame
And the lion shall lay down with the lamb
And the beasts from the wild shall be led by a child
And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am.’

(See also ‘the lion lies down with the lamb’.)

The song was performed much less satisfactorily by Bob Dylan in concert in 1989 (Frejus, France, June 18).

Probably the last survivor of the key figures born around the turn of the century who were originally recording in the 1920s, Dorsey died in Chicago on January 23, 1993, aged 93.

[Georgia Tom: ‘Grievin’ Me Blues’, Chicago, c.6 Sep 1928, Rare Blues of the Twenties, No.1, Historical HLP-1, NY, 1966. Tampa Red & Georgia Tom: ‘It’s Tight Like That’, Chicago, 24 Oct 1928. Dorsey photograph in Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues, London: Penguin, 1969, p.99. Sources includes Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992 edn., Dorsey 2nd quote p.219, telegram p.217; Dorsey 1st & 3rd quote, seen online 29 Jul, 2004.]


Blogger Meadowsislands said...

Thank you for this great biography. I am searching almost 12 years for the lyrics to the song I think was performed by Thomas Dorsey and written by R. H. Harris. The name of the song is "It Is Thy Servant's Prayer, A-men" If you happen to have these lyrics I would love to see them. Thanks

11:54 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Meadowislands
Thank you for your comments. Just put "It Is Thy Servant's Prayer" into Google and you'll find a great many websites with information about this song. At a glance, it seems to have been composed by Dorsey, though R.H. Harris' name crops up too.

9:59 am  

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