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Thomas A. Dorsey - Short History

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Published on Nov 18, 2008

Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993, composer of such standards as "There Will Be Peace in the Valley"), is considered by many gospel devotees to be the "Father of Gospel Music." The son of a minister, Dorsey was a consummate musician and as a young man accompanied some of the most famous blues singers of all time-specifically, Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and Ma Rainey (1886-1939). He also arranged and composed blues tunes.

His penchant for bouncy tunes and bawdy lyrics did not keep him from attending the annual meetings of the National Baptist Convention, though. and it was at one of these meetings in Philadelphia that Dorsey first heard the compositions of Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933, composer of "We'll Understand It Better By and By" and "Leave It There" among others).


In his essay, "Rock, Church, Rock," Arna Bontemps says that it was then that Dorsey began to write religious music, abandoning his brash lyrics but not the jazz rhythms and blues flavor and rhythmic style so akin to Tindley's own.

Naturally, the "old guard" conservatives considered this blending of the sacred (spirituals and hymns) and the secular (blues and jazz) as "the devil's music" and shunned it. By its actions, the church declared Dorsey's brand of gospel music unworthy of a hearing within the sanctuaries of the day, a story quite similarly echoed by churches responding to the rock 'n' roll Jesus Movement that swept the country in the early '70s. In both instances, the traditional church failed to see the positive influence contemporary music could have, blessing its listeners and encouraging them to draw near God. It is this intense spiritual quality in gospel music that lifts it up beyond its mere form, a quality that most preachers in Dorsey's day failed to understand.
A 1994 Score magazine article titled "The Father of Gospel Music" quoted Dorsey as saying, "When I realized how hard some folks were fighting the gospel idea, I was determined to carry the banner."
Carry it he did. "I borrowed five dollars and sent out 500 copies of my song, 'If You See My Savior,' to churches throughout the country.... It was three years before I got a single order. I felt like going back to the blues."

He didn't. With pioneer singers such as Sallie Martin (1896-1988) and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-94) propagating his music, he stayed the course long enough to write over 800 songs and hear his music ascend from the first row pews to the choir stand, where it previously had been banned.


Other composers, such as Lucy Campbell ("Something Within") and Dr. Herbert Brewster ("Surely God is Able"), picked up the torch and the way was lit for another generation to take control. To insure this, Dorsey founded The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, an organization still in existence today. Dorsey was a planter. The fruits of that harvest were the exceptional singers who spread gospel around the country and indeed the world in the years that followed--Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland are but a few.

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