Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Songs to Die for--Precious Lord, Take My Hand

A couple of weeks ago Youngest Daughter said, "I want you to sing to me." So I sat down with her and broke out the standard repertoire for such sessions--chiefly Negro spirituals and early American hymn tunes or folk tunes. "Brethren, We Have Met to Worship," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," "I Wonder As I Wander," "Talk About a Soul," "Poor, Wayfarin' Stranger," "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me," and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" are the ones I can remember. Eventually Middle Daughter came out and asked, "Are those all songs that were written by the slaves?" I told her that as far as I could tell, only a few of them were, but that the tunes to the rest of them were old American tunes. Except for one. The only one I thought fell into neither category was "Precious Lord."

So I looked it up and got quite a surprise. It turns out that "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" is written to a modified version of the very same tune as one of my other favorites, which I've blogged about already, "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone." I've known both of those songs for years and never recognized the similarity once. But I was right that it isn't either a spiritual or early American. Thomas Dorsey, the black song writer who wrote the words and put them to the tune in 1932, did something pretty cool. Basically he took what is essentially a "white" American hymn tune (akin in chord pattern and style to "Amazing Grace"), written in the 1800's by a man named George N. Nelson, and he gave it a spiritual "swing," adding a number of extra notes to fill it out and make it slower. So my ear did detect correctly the fact that it isn't a true spiritual, but I also detected correctly its vague resemblance to a spiritual. Dorsey wrote the song after his wife died in childbirth; their child then also died. Here are the words:

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

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.

Now, if I could just find some confirmation of my gut feeling that all the sources are wrong, and that "Let us Break Bread Together on our Knees" is not a spiritual, I'd feel like a real instinctive music historian. The harmony seems wrong for the genre; the words seem wrong for the genre. But I have to admit that Google is solidly against my gut instinct on this one, so probably that one really is a spiritual.

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