GM – FBF – Today’s American Champion was an American musician, composer, and Christian evangelist influential in the development of early blues and 20th-century gospel music.

GM – FBF – Today’s American Champion was an American musician, composer, and Christian evangelist influential in the development of early blues and 20th-century gospel music.He penned 3,000 songs, a third of them gospel, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley”. Recordings of these sold millions of copies in both gospel and secular markets in the 20th century. Born in rural Georgia, Dorsey grew up in a religious family but gained most of his musical experience playing blues at barrelhouses and parties in Atlanta. He moved to Chicago and became a proficient composer and arranger of jazz and vaudeville just as blues was becoming popular. He gained fame accompanying blues belter Ma Rainey on tour and, billed as “Georgia Tom”, joined with guitarist Tampa Red in a successful recording career.After a spiritual awakening, Dorsey began concentrating on writing and arranging religious music. Aside from the lyrics, he saw no real distinction between blues and church music, and viewed songs as a supplement to spoken word preaching. Dorsey served as the music director at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church for 50 years, introducing musical improvisation and encouraging personal elements of participation such as clapping, stomping, and shouting in churches when these were widely condemned as unrefined and common. In 1932, he co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, an organization dedicated to training musicians and singers from all over the U.S. that remains active.The first generation of gospel singers in the 20th century worked or trained with Dorsey: Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, and James Cleveland, among others.Author Anthony Heilbut summarized Dorsey’s influence by saying he “combined the good news of gospel with the bad news of blues”. Called the “Father of Gospel Music” and often credited with creating it, Dorsey more accurately spawned a movement that popularized gospel blues throughout African American churches in the United States, which in turn influenced American music and helped spawned the creation of all major American music forms in the 1900s and 2000s. Today in our History – October 17, 1933 – Thomas Andrew Dorsey (July 1, 1899 – January 23, 1993) directed the Pilgrim Baptist Church choir performance at the 1933 World’s Fair.Gospel historian Horace Boyer writes that gospel music “has no more imposing figure” than Dorsey, and the Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music states that he “defined” the genre. Folklorist Alan Lomax claims that Dorsey “literally invented gospel”. In Living Blues, Jim O’Neal compares Dorsey in gospel to W. C. Handy, who was the first and most influential blues composer, “with the notable difference that Dorsey developed his tradition from within, rather than ‘discovering’ it from an outsider’s vantage point”. Although he was not the first to join elements of the blues to religious music, he earned the honorific “Father of Gospel Music”, according to gospel singer and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon, for his “aggressive campaign for its use as worship songs in black Protestant churches”.Throughout his career, Dorsey composed more than 1,000 gospel and 2,000 blues songs, an achievement Mahalia Jackson considered equal to Irving Berlin’s body of work. The manager of a gospel quartet active in the 1930s stated that songs written by Dorsey and other songwriters copying him spread so far in such a short time that they were called “dorseys”. Horace Boyer attributes this popularity to “simple but beautiful melodies”, unimposing harmonies, and room for improvisation within the music. Lyrically, according to Boyer, Dorsey was “skilled at writing songs that not only captured the hopes, fears, and aspirations of the poor and disenfranchised African Americans but also spoke to all people”. Anthony Heilbut further explains that “the gospel of [Charles] Tindley and Dorsey talks directly to the poor. In so many words, it’s about rising above poverty while still living humble deserting the ways of the world while retaining its best tunes.” Aside from his prodigious songwriting, Dorsey’s influence in the gospel blues movement brought about change both for individuals in the black community and communities as a whole. He introduced rituals and standards among gospel choirs that are still in use. At the beginning of worship services, Dorsey instructed choruses to march from the rear of the sanctuary to the choir-loft in a specific way, singing all the while. Choir members were encouraged to be physically active while singing, rocking and swaying with the music.He insisted that songs be memorized rather than chorus members reading music or lyrics while performing. This freed the choir members’ hands to clap, and he knew anyway that most of the chorus singers in the early 1930s were unable to read music. Moreover, Dorsey refused to provide musical notation, or use it while directing, because he felt the music was only to be used as a guide, not strictly followed. Including all the embellishments in gospel blues would make the notation prohibitively complicated. Dorsey instead asked his singers to rely on feeling. I think about all these blue-collar people who had to deal with Jim Crow, meager salaries, and yet the maid who cleaned up somebody else’s house all week long, the porter, the chauffeur, the gardener, the cook, were nobody. They had to sit in the back of the bus, they were denied their rights, but when they walked into their church on Sunday morning and put on a robe and went down that aisle and stood on that choir stand, the maid became a coloratura, and when she stood before her church of five hundred to a thousand, two thousand people, she knew she was somebody. And I think the choir meant so much to those people because for a few hours on Sunday, they were royalty.– Gospel singer Donald VailsWhile presiding over rehearsals, Dorsey was strict and businesslike. He demanded that members attend practice regularly and that they should live their lives by the same standards promoted in their songs. For women, that included not wearing make-up.Choruses were stocked primarily with women, often untrained singers with whom Dorsey worked personally, encouraging many women who had little to no participation in church before to become active. Similarly, the NCGCC in 1933 is described by Dorsey biographer Michael W. Harris as “a women’s movement” as nine of the thirteen presiding officer positions were held by women. Due to Dorsey’s influence, the definition of gospel music shifted away from sacred song compositions to religious music that causes a physical release of pain and suffering, particularly in black churches. He infused joy and optimism in his written music as he directed his choirs to do perform with uplifting fervor as they sang.The cathartic nature of gospel music became integral to the black experience in the Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of black Southerners moved to Northern cities like Detroit, Washington, D.C., and especially Chicago between 1919 and 1970. These migrants were refugees from poverty and the systemic racism endemic throughout the Jim Crow South. They created enclaves within neighborhoods through church choirs, which doubled as social clubs, offering a sense of purpose and belonging. Encountering a “golden age” between 1940 and 1960, gospel music introduced recordings and radio broadcasts featuring singers who had all been trained by Dorsey or one of his protégées. As Dorsey is remembered as the father of gospel music, other honorifics came from his choirs: Sallie Martin, considered the mother of gospel (although Willie Mae Ford Smith, also a Dorsey associate, has also been called this), Mahalia Jackson, the queen of gospel, and James Cleveland, often named the king of gospel.In 1936, members of Dorsey’s junior choir became the Roberta Martin Singers, a successful recording group which set the standard for gospel ensembles, both for groups and individual voice roles within vocal groups. In Dorsey’s wake, R&B artists Dinah Washington, who was a member of the Sallie Martin Singers, Sam Cooke, originally in the gospel band the Soul Stirrers, Ray Charles, Little Richard, James Brown, and the Coasters recorded both R&B and gospel songs, moving effortlessly between the two, as Dorsey did, and bringing elements of gospel to mainstream audiences. Despite racial segregation in churches and the music industry, Dorsey’s music had widespread crossover appeal. Prominent hymnal publishers began including his compositions in the late 1930s, ensuring his music would be sung in white churches. His song “Peace in the Valley”, written in 1937 originally for Mahalia Jackson, was recorded by, among others, Red Foley in 1951, and Elvis Presley in 1957, selling more than a million copies each. Foley’s version has been entered into the National Recording Registry as a culturally significant recording worthy of preservation.Notably, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was the favorite song of Martin Luther King Jr., who asked Dorsey to play it for him on the eve of his assassination. Mahalia Jackson sang at his funeral when King did not get to hear it. Anthony Heilbut writes that “the few days following his death, ‘Precious Lord’ seemed the truest song in America, the last poignant cry of nonviolence before a night of storm that shows no sign of ending”. Four years later, Aretha Franklin sang it at Jackson’s funeral. Since its debut it has been translated into 50 languages. Chicago held its first gospel music festival as a tribute to Dorsey in 1985; it has taken place each year since then. Though he never returned to his hometown, efforts to honor Dorsey in Villa Rica, Georgia, began a week after his death. Mount Prospect Baptist Church, where his father preached and Dorsey learned music at his mother’s organ, was declared a historic site by the city, and a historical marker was placed at the location where his family’s house once stood. The Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace and Gospel Heritage Festival, established in 1994, remains active. As of 2020, the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses has 50 chapters around the world. Research more about this great American Champion and share it with your babies. Make it a champion day!