spiritual blues

Thomas A. Dorsey

Gospel music and the blues share a unique relationship, reflecting two sides of the same coin, some music critics have written. It was, and still is, very common for black blues singers performing in juke joints on Saturday nights to be singing hymns in church the next morning to the same sort of beats and rhythms, or even the same lyrics. In fact, some of these songs were religious hymns that had been converted to blues or rhythm and blues (R&B) by changing a lyric here or there or adhering to a similar sound. Some singers have forged careers by making these types of conversions which were, and still are, denounced noisily by pious church goers and blues purists.

According to the Mississippi Blues Trail website: “…the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the other.” Spirituals and hymns preceded gospel, a genre that evolved through the work of Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues singer and composer often called the “father of [Black] gospel music,” and others. “The influence between religious music and blues has long been mutual. While both genres have their own distinct characteristics, many gospel songs have been transformed into blues or soul songs, and vice versa, by simply changing a few words in the lyrics.”

When looking for clear-cut examples of such musical manipulation, the works of Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) may, in fact, be one of the most profound. Dorsey was born in Georgia and originally made his mark in the music industry as a blues pianist playing under the stage names of “Georgia Tom” or “Texas Tommy.” He is best known for writing and performing the gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which he wrote while grieving over the death of his wife Nettie in 1932.

The Great Depression was at its apex in the early 1930s and, with that prevailing dark mood, Dorsey’s combining of blues rhythms and spiritual lyrics did not go over well with many conservative Christians. In the beginning, many mainstream churches rejected his songs. “He spoke many times about being ‘thrown out of some of the best churches in America’ where the pastor’s labeled his gospel songs as ‘Devil Music’,” claims the blog Black Art Depot Today.

Blind R&B singer Ray Charles (1930-2004) was another prolific converter of religious music. His famous 1954 hit “I’ve Got a Woman” was a good example. It was originally a church hymn entitled “It Must be Jesus,” which was first performed by the Southern Tones, a gospel group. Charles’ converted song became a prototype for what later became known as soul music. Other music critics say the song was a converted gospel hymn called “My Jesus Is All the World to Me.” No matter the source, Charles’ R&B version shot up the music charts like a roman candle, turning the music world on its head.

But in mid-50s America, this sort of hymn conversion was frowned upon, to put it mildly. Not just pious Christians were upset at Charles’ mixing – blues purists got their backs up too, saying that spiritual music and the blues should not be stirred together. Although the converted song “I’ve Got a Woman” helped Charles tap into a much wider white audience, it was shocking and outrageous to many Christians and blues purists at that time.

Ray Charles, however, remained unfazed. “If I was inventing something new, I wasn’t aware of it. I started taking gospel lines and turning them into regular songs. Many of [my] first tunes were adaptations of spirituals I had sung in quartets back in school,” states Robert Marovich’s Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul blog, quoting Ray Charles. Among the “spirituals-and-blues” Charles cites creating was “Leave My Woman Alone” from the gospel standard “You Better Leave that Liar Alone.”

Maybe we have to look farther back into history to understand the connection between spirituals and the blues. During slavery, for example, many Southern plantation owners forced their slaves to attend Christian churches, where they sang traditional (white) hymns. Slaves adapted these songs to their own needs and desires and thus produced what is known as the “Negro spiritual.” Many believe the most important American antecedent of the blues was the Negro spiritual, so it should not be surprising that some singers and performers would combine the two into an art form of its own. The songs of Thomas A. Dorsey and Ray Charles are proof this has actually happened.