The Rise of the Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church

Harris, Michael W. The Rise of the Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, The Rise of Gospel Blues by Michael Harris traces the music and career of the “father” of the early gospel song movement, Thomas Andrew Dorsey, within the larger context of the old-line religion of Chicago’s Black church culture during the 1920s and 1930s. Within that culture, argues Harris, two competing worldviews were at play: one which largely ignored African-American spiritual heritage by seeing the church as a channel to assimilate Blacks into the larger and dominant white culture, while the other equally sought to forward the Black position yet on the basis of their heritage. The book shows how the slow rise of Dorsey as a performer, composer and arranger of blues music in Atlanta and Chicago in the 1910s and 1920s would later prepare him to lead mainstream Black congregations to challenge traditional assimilationist assumptions and reclaim their spiritual and cultural heritage through the introduction of gospel music. Harris argues that, for Dorsey, gospel blues was more than simply musical notes on a page. Instead, it represented a deep religious feeling indigenous to Blacks’ African and American identity, connecting particularly with southern Blacks, like Dorsey himself, who moved in large numbers to Northern cities looking for work after World War I. The author concludes that, by the end of the 1930s, gospel music became a powerful and accepted part of the Black church experience.