Text and Tune: Thomas A. Dorsey ((1899-1993)
1. Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand. I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm worn. Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
2. When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord linger near When my light is almost gone. Hear my cry, hear my call, Hold my hand lest I fall, Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home
3. When the darkness appears,
And the night draws near, And the day is past and gone, At the river I stand, Guide my feet, hold my hand, Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
4. Precious Lord, take my hand Lead me on, let me stand. I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm worn. Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home. MEDITATION
1968 was an awful year. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, Bobby Kennedy in June, The night before he was killed in Memphis, King asked that the gathering sing his favorite song, “Precious Lord.” It was the last song he heard before he stepped out on to his balcony and was shot and killed. Three days after his death, at a scheduled concert by Nina Simone, it was added to the program and recorded live at the Westbury Music Fair, and dedicated to the memory of King. At his funeral, several days later, Mahalia Jackson sang it to a grieving nation.
Later, in June, Robert Kennedy would be assassinated. The Viet Nam War was raging as were the protests against it. They continued in the riots at Chicago during the Democratic National Convention which nominated Hubert Humphrey as its presidential candidate. The nation was divided. In some ways those divisions still persist in our country and are still distressing to many.
I was finishing my work on my Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Tensions simmered as the issues of Civil Rights and the war affected everything. Although Fayetteville was not in the Deep South, many of my teachers and colleagues had grown up in Mississippi and were passionately involved in the Civil Rights movement. They gave vivid accounts of their experiences in the struggle. My poetry teacher had been with the Civil Right activist Medgar Evers (1925-1963) just before he was killed in a car bomb incident. For me it was a completely different world.
Most of my teachers and friends at the University had been evangelicals in their teen years, but had abandoned the faith as they became adults. They could never figure out how I could be an intellectual and a Christian at the same time. In fact one of my teachers, in his recommendation of me to the Luther College English department, where I began teaching that fall, marveled that I was a Christian.
That was very strange to them, but even stranger, was that I had grown up in the frozen Lutheran North knowing gospel songs.The Sunday night singspirations had taught me the American Gospel Song book which we shared. Most of their parties, well oiled with bourbon, would end with them singing these hymns late into the night: Sacred Harp songs, Gospel songs, and black Gospel songs like this. White southerners grew up knowing this music. When Elvis Presley sang Dorsey's "Peace in the Valley" and "Precious Lord," it was a sign that black Gospel had passed over the color line. This hymn became a standard track on albums from Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, to Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford. It is now considered a classic.
We sang the song many times that year as the nation grieved together. It is a prayer that many hymn writers have prayed, asking the Lord for guidance, and shepherding through the darkness. That was a dark time indeed. Dorsey wrote the hymn after a personal tragedy. It shines with faith and Christian hope as we pray the Lord will lead us toward the light.
Thomas A. Dorsey is known as the Father of Gospel music. A pastor’s son, he was born in Georgia and began playing blues with many famous singers like Ma Rainey. Later he moved to Chicago where he studied music. He had a conversion experience that turned him toward writing spiritual songs reflecting his renewed faith. In writing the music, he used the conventions of the blues and jazz he had been playing. He really invented Gospel. This song, written in 1931, came out of the deep grief he suffered when his wife Nellie Harper died giving birth to their son who died a few days later. He needed the Lord to lead him on. Since then, it has been sung around the world whenever and wherever people need comfort and help. For a fine documentary on Dorsey and the movement check out Say Amen, Somebody.
Thomas A. Dorsey’s version
A brief lecture on Dorsey and his tradition