Somebody say amen

January 27, 1993

The body of religious songs popularly known as gospel music is by now so familiar to most Americans that they seem like collective creations, part of our national folk heritage.

In fact, gospel music was the self-conscious product of many individual composers, of whom perhaps the most prolific and original was Chicago songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey, who died Sunday at the age of 93.

Since at least the time of Martin Luther, who insisted that "the devil shouldn't have all the good tunes," religious songwriters have turned to popular music for inspiration.

Mr. Dorsey, born in Villa Rica, Ga., in 1899, began his career playing piano accompaniments to the silent movies popular in the first decades of the century. In the 1920s, he played jazz piano with such legendary blues performers as Ma Rainy.

But it was his religious music that has ensured his place in history. He was the chief developer of what is today known as gospel music, a melding of several traditional genres, most notably Negro spirituals and Protestant church hymns.

To these, Mr. Dorsey coupled elements of ragtime, jazz and the blues. His goal was to create a new religious music that would reflect the rapidly changing society that was America during the first half of the 20th century.

The result was a unique art, immediately recognizable as much for its infectious rhythms and emotional exuberance as for its devotional serenity. Handed down primarily through the black church, it shaped the style of generations of great singers, from Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin to Anita Baker and Whitney Houston.

In the early 1930s Mr. Dorsey wrote his most famous song, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," a moving hymn inspired by the death of his first wife in childbirth and the death of their infant shortly afterward. "Take My Hand" has been translated into more than 50 languages and recorded by singers all over the world. In all, he wrote more than 1,000 gospel tunes, as well as several hundred blues compositions.

In 1983, Mr. Dorsey appeared in a film entitled "Say Amen, Somebody," documenting the origins of gospel music. It would be hard to overstate his influence on subsequent developments in American popular music, which has since spread to every corner of the globe. He will be remembered as a true pioneer of American music as well as the creator of some of the world's most joyful sounds.

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