A tragedy becomes catalyst for popular song

Published 7:05 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Mahalia Jackson sang it at the funeral of civil rights leader and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King.

Famous soprano Leontyne Price sang it at the funeral of Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States. It is a song that is a major source of inspiration for those who are experiencing unimaginable pain and suffering. The song is even today a source of inspiration to many people in more than 46 countries.

Few people realize, however, that the song was written by man, who upon hearing about the loss of his wife and son, for a moment, essentially cursed God.

He was born in 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, to a father who was a minister, and a mother who played the piano. He was one of seven children. When he was 7-years-old, his mother began to teach him how to play the piano. Around 1908, seeking a better life, his parents moved to Atlanta. There, the family found life difficult financially, and his father minimized his pastoring and worked as a laborer, while his mother secured work as a domestic servant. After church was no longer the focal point of his parents’ lives, his connection to organized religion suffered and waned.

Atlanta was like a different planet to this young man. He found solace in Atlanta’s blues and vaudeville community. Young and impressionable, and still very young, as fate would have it, he attended the performances of Ma Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith, two of the greatest blues singers in the country at the time. He became so hypnotized with them that he temporarily forgot all about his religious upbringing and fell in love with the blues. He immediately immersed himself in studying the piano and organ.

Atlanta ultimately became too slow for him and in 1916, he left the city and headed to Chicago. It was in Chicago that he again met Ma Rainey. He became a member of her Wild Cats Jazz Band, and in no time, he too, now with the adopted name of “Georgia Tom,” was an immediate success in the city’s nightlife.

The partying and nightlife quickly took its toll on “Georgia Tom.” One night while performing, he fell very ill, resulting ultimately in a nervous breakdown. He returned to Atlanta to convalesce.

While there, his mother told him his illness was directly related to playing the music of the devil. Not wanting to hear this, he returned to Chicago and later married his sweetheart. In 1925, a second breakdown left him unable to play any music. After his recovery, some three years later, he committed himself to playing sacred music. Mainstream churches, however, wanted no part of his songs and music.

It was during this period that his wife and son died during childbirth, throwing his life into a crisis. He immediately turned to his piano and wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which he said, was given to him by God. I am of course, talking about Thomas Dorsey — called the father of Gospel music. A man who was known to say during his lifetime, “I’ve been thrown out of the best churches in America.”