Thomas A. Dorsey, Gospel & the Devil’s Music

Posted on May 29, 2011


They used to call him Georgia Tom, a piano player who had once put together a band for Ma Rainey, and who in 1928, while dueting with Tampa Red, the Guitar Wizard, sold seven million records with a song called “It’s Tight Like That.”  The song was widely covered by blues and jazz artists, as well as reissued in various remakes by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red themselves.  Tampa Red & Georgia Tom – It’s Tight Like That

Spawning imitations and selling millions of records ought to have made Thomas A. Dorsey and his partner wealthy.  But not many African-American musicians and composers got wealthy in those days of White privilege.  Dorsey’s dissatisfaction with the way he got treated by music publishers eventually led him to start his own music publishing business, by which time he had switched musical genres — taking the unusual step of inventing one himself.

Georgia Tom had been singing religious music since the mid-1920s, but in 1932 he began to turn to it more seriously, bringing his blues credentials with him.  Following the death in 1932 of his wife and child in childbirth, he wrote the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”  (Mahalia Jackson – Precious Lord, Take My Hand)

Dorsey had always been prolific—he wrote more than 400 blues—but he went on to write more than a thousand songs in the genre which he founded, gospel, a melding of blues structure and blues and jazz rhythms with the spirituals and the more sedate Black religious music that came before.

What Dorsey was doing was in fact revolutionary, and he well deserves the title he was eventually given, the Father of Gospel Music.  But before he got that title, before he brought everybody around to his way of musical thinking, he met a lot of resistance for importing elements of what was characterized as “the devil’s music” into church music.

“I was thrown out of some of the best churches in America,” he said himself.

By the time he died in 1993, however, it had been a long time since he’d been thrown out of any churches.

Gospel music went on to develop along its own paths, but the influence of Thomas A. Dorsey remains immense.  Songs like “Peace in the Valley” have been covered by hundreds of artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Here’s a version by Sam Cooke, an artist who went on from gospel harmonizing to a career in soul music, a type of music directly derived from gospel music as it was in the early 1950s.  Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers – Peace in the Valley

You may recall the scene in the biopic “Ray” where Ray Charles starts to perform “I Got a Woman” in a club and one of the fans starts complaining about how Ray is adding the devil’s lyrics to religious music.  That’s exactly what Ray was doing.  Except what he was really doing was just stealing back, a portion at least, of what Georgia Tom had added in there from “the devil’s music” in the first place.  Ray Charles – I Got a Woman

But putting it in, taking it back, it seems there’s always somebody complaining.  And they always stop after awhile.


See more about Thomas A. Dorsey here: 

Thomas Dorsey, Father of Gospel Music (tribute)


Posted in: music