THE STORY BEHIND THE SONG
From God, for God and His People:
"Peace in the Valley"
By Lindsay Terry
For he is our peace . . .
One of the most prized possessions I have as a song historian is a cassette containing a recording of my interview with Thomas Andrew Dorsey, which he granted to me in 1977. In it he told me a great many things about himself and his music. Time and space will not allow me to tell his whole story, but I am passing on to you some of the highlights of his very active life as a musician, choir director, and songwriter.
Thomas Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, a small town about forty miles from Atlanta. While still in his early teens, his attention was drawn to show business by the music of the black performers in Atlanta. He soon began playing piano in the jazz clubs, under the name of Georgia Tom. At age seventeen, he moved to Gary, Indiana, to pursue his music career. Two years later, he moved on to Chicago, where he enrolled in the Chicago College of Composition and Arranging and began playing with local jazz groups. He soon formed his own band, which became the backup group for Ma Rainey, a well-known blues singer.
In 1928, in partnership with slide guitarist Hudson “Tampa Red” Whitaker, he wrote and recorded a song that hit the top of the blues charts and sold more than seven million copies, according to one report. Dorsey is credited with writing more than 450 rhythm and blues and jazz songs, and with establishing the Dorsey House of Music in 1932, the first independent company to publish black gospel music.
Nevertheless, his life was proof that the world does not satisfy a Christian. After he suffered a nervous breakdown, it took two years for him to recuperate. During that time, the Lord was speaking to him. In 1930, he lost his wife and newborn son. He later said, “I was doing all right by myself, but the voice of God whispered, ‘You need to change a little.’” He eventually found that he could not be a part of the R&B and jazz world and do his work for the Lord properly.
He put together a choir at his church, Pilgrim Baptist Church, with Roberta Martin playing the piano. In 1933, he organized the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, along with Sallie Martin, his good friend Theodore Frye, and several others. During our interview in 1977, he told me that he was still actively leading one of the choirs at the church. He was seventy-eight years old at the time.
His songs have been recorded by such diverse artists as Mahalia Jackson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. President Lyndon B. Johnson requested that “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” be sung at his funeral. It was also used at a rally led by Martin Luther King Jr. the night before his assassination.
In September 1981, Dorsey’s native state honored him with election to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. In 1982, he was the first African-American elected to the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame. In that same year, the Thomas A. Dorsey Archives were opened at Fisk University, where his collection joined those of W. C. Handy, George Gershwin, and the famed Jubilee Singers. In summing up his life as a Christian, Dorsey said that all of his work has been “from God, for God, and for His people.” In 1983, George T. Nierenberg produced a documentary of the history of gospel music, Say Amen, Somebody, in which Thomas Dorsey made a personal appearance. Dorsey was also elected to the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame.
In 1937, he wrote a song for Mahalia Jackson, “Peace in the Valley,” which has become extremely popular. I will never forget hearing a young black man walking down a road on Andros Island, an out-of-the-way part of the Bahamas, singing “Peace in the Valley.” In the song, Dorsey speaks of being “tired and so weary,” a plight of many of God’s people who “must go along.” But there is coming a time when the “morning is bright and the Lamb is the Light.” In that time and place, the “night is as fair as the day” and there is no more sadness, sorrow, or trouble—only peace.
After the passing of Dorsey’s wife, Nettie, he later married again. I had the joy of speaking with Mrs. Kathryn Dorsey shortly before her husband’s death on January 23, 1993, in Chicago. Thomas Dorsey wrote nearly one thousand gospel songs in his lifetime.
There is no word more precious than peace, nor a more joyous state of being for a Christian, than to know God’s peace. We long for it, and when it comes to us it is directly from our heavenly Father.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Taken from Stories Behind 50 Southern Gospel Favorites © 2005 by Lindsay Terry.
Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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