SONG: Take My Hand, Precious Lord
ARTIST: Mahalia Jackson
Listen to it here:
Take My Hand, Precious Lord is a gospel song written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, who is not the same person as Tommy Dorsey. Reverend Dorsey composed the melody by leaning heavily on the 1844 hymn tune, Maitland, and the words were in response to his inconsolable bereavement at the death of his wife and infant son in childbirth. The earliest known recording is from 1937 by the Heavenly Gospel Singers, and the song has since been published in more than 40 languages.
This song has become much more well known over the second half of the 20th Century as it was Martin Luther King Jr’s favourite song. The artist we’ll be listening to today, Mahalia Jackson, was often invited to sing it at civil rights rallies to inspire the crowds. Jackson famously sang the song at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral, and Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral.
Mahalia Jackson is widely considered to be one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th Century. Jackson was the granddaughter of slaves and was born and raised in poverty in New Orleans. She quickly found a place for herself within her church community and decided at an early age that her life would be in dedication to deliver the word of God through song.
When Jackson was a teen, she moved to Chicago and joined one of the earliest gospel groups, the Johnson Singers. She made quite an impression within the Chicago churches and quickly started getting hired to sing at funerals, political rallies, and revivals. Throughout her 20s and into her 30s, this is how she made her living.
Mahalia Jackson eventually came to be recognized across the US in 1947 when her release “Move On Up a Little Higher” made it to number two on the Billboard charts. She also started to get recognized in Europe, and shortly thereafter became the first gospel recording artist to tour Europe. She appeared frequently on television and radio, and often performed at political events. Around this time she became a close family friend of Martin Luther King and became a human rights advocate.
Though she was doing quite well with her gospel recordings, Mahalia Jackson faced fairly constant pressure to record secular music, and turned down many high paying opportunities as a result. She also suffered from ill health, particularly heart problems for a lot of her late career. In 1972, Jackson underwent surgery to remove a bowel obstruction and died in recovery.
- With the earnings from her first hit record, Jackson bought a vehicle large enough to sleep in so that she would not have to be concerned with finding a place to stay the night in the segregated south.
Ohhhh Mahalia. Is there a more iconic gospel voice? Despite being irreligious. I LOVE gospel music. Mahalia, Andraé Crouch, Kirk Franklin. To me Mahalia is the OG of 20th century gospel music. And this song is just so classic. It’s the rubato-iest tempo ever. I imagine the pianist and organist just sitting with a chord pattern and would just watch and listen to Mahalia for when to change chords and flourish their little hearts out. For me it conjures images of a packed, humid southern Baptist church, Mahalia just belting and the spots where she’s not singing being interjected by impassioned, fanning members of the congregation. This is what I imagine her concerts like too. Anyway, the real showstopper here is Mahalia’s actual voice. Beautiful, rich, velvet power. Although I’ve heard her a million times (she is a staple at Christmas time in this house) I’ve never really critically listened to her voice before. What a voice. Part of me wonders what she would have sounded like if she had gone the opera route, maybe like Leontyne Price. Her entire range sounds strong, not really any weak spots. Even her higher register continues the power of her lower register, which surprised me. The content of this song for ME is…whatever. If I were a religious person maybe it would affect me. But Mahalia could sing an impassioned version of the yellow pages and I would buy in.
Gospel is not my style of choice, normally, but it is absolutely impossible not to be moved by Mahalia Jackson’s voice. This is one of her most famous songs, and it’s no wonder. She sings in a full, unaffected and unadorned voice that brings across so much emotion and depth. Her voice is kind of breathy in a good way, and sometimes she does this really nasal thing that sounds way better than most singers that sing nasally. In this song she is accompanied by a pianist who is playing a lot of rolled chords and arpeggiated little figures, an organ holding chords with vibrato, and then waaaaaay in the distance there are some singers singing held chords. To me, the piano/organ can get to be a bit much, but they’re definitely situated right in the gospel style, so maybe it’s more tasteful to people who have been more involved in listening to/singing gospel music. About a minute and a half in, Jackson rises above all of it in maybe the most affecting part of the song. As I’ve said, I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to gospel, but it’s clear in listening to Mahalia Jackson that you’re listening to an artist.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Elvis gave his own gospel spin:
Hank Williams countries it up:
And of course, Aretha’s version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
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