The first of several pivotal scenes in the film Selma occurs when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The undeniable weight of what lay ahead for King and the civil rights movement was heavy on his soul. In quiet desperation, King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) awakens the gospel music legend with the phone call and simply says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.”
Mahalia Jackson (played by Ledisi Young) breaks the stillness of the night with an impromptu and stemwinding plea in her housecoat and slippers:
“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.”
This iconic scene in the film was indicative of King’s dependence upon spiritual strength, Jackson’s healing voice, and the Savior’s nail-scared hands. “Precious Lord” was King’s supplication, his way of reaching out for the hem of the garment. It was his last request only moments before his voice of eloquence was forever silenced on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 bullet. King had just asked Chicago saxophonist Ben Branch to play the song at the rally later that night in Memphis.
As a farewell to her civil rights compatriot, Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. This would be the last of innumerable times they would share the same stage. Whenever King requested it, Jackson was willing to lend her voice for the cause – despite the death threats. As the granddaughter of slaves, Jackson sang the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” right before King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. Jackson is credited for steering King off his prepared text by shouting from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the undisputed queen of gospel music. She incurred the wrath from some church folks who resented the way she unveiled the power of gospel music outside the sanctuary in secular venues. Others thought that her soaring style, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping borrowed too much from the blues and jazz singers of vaudeville, the sin bins, and the juke joints.
Despite heavy-handed pressure, Jackson never compromised on her personal vow to only sing gospel music. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she said. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”
No one understood the spiritual chasm between blues and gospel more profoundly than did Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the songwriter of “Precious Lord” and the legendary father of gospel music. For more than a decade, Dorsey was also known for writing bawdy blues under the alias “Georgia Tom.” As the prodigal son of a church organist mother and a father who was a Baptist minister, Dorsey’s double life embodied a very real spiritual warfare.
“My soul was a deluge of divine rapture,” said Dorsey after hearing spirit-filled music at a revival. Not long after that, however, Dorsey was playing piano as Georgia Tom for blues legends Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red.
Two severe and lengthy bouts with what he dubbed as “unsteadiness” incapacitated him from playing music and caused him to tailspin into depression. His mother told him to give up the blues and get back into the good graces of the Lord. But every time he would lurch in a righteous direction, it seemed as if the blues would lure him back. The war for his soul raged back and forth for many years.
After a miraculous divine encounter and prophecy at a church service, Dorsey made a heartfelt commitment to focus on gospel. A remarkable professional collaboration between Dorsey and Jackson began shortly thereafter.
In 1932, things would change forever for Dorsey. He had become the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and was selling his songs to mass choirs. As he was preparing for a gospel concert in St. Louis, he received a telegram instructing him to immediately return home. By the time he arrived, his young wife Nettie had died giving birth to the couple’s son. Two days later, the baby also died.
Dorsey was crushed, despondent, and trampled underfoot. Social critic Stanley Crouch once observed that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It was in the forsakenness of that hour that Dorsey chipped away at the piano and wrote, “Precious Lord, take my hand …” In the sorrow of the desolation and flood of his loss, the song that inspired Dr. King was the dove that Dorsey released in search of dry land, the flight of hope. It was his blues: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” It was his gospel: “Lead me on, let me stand.”
“If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues, he feels like expressing it,” Dorsey told his biographer Michael W. Harris in The Rise of Gospel Blues (Oxford). “The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”
For Dorsey, life was both gospel and blues. He had seen it in the juke joints and the sanctuaries. “It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that,” Dorsey said. “It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up…”
“Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel.
It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation – somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.