Thomas Dorsey’s 1932 gospel song Take My Hand, Precious Lord
is one of modern gospel music’s most canonical works. Although its composition by Dorsey in the wake of his wife’s sudden death in childbirth is a widely known oral history, the cultural implications of a wider history of health care disparities in the US leading to higher rates of black maternal and infant mortality have not been seriously considered. This article studies the history of black maternal and infant mortality in Chicago during the Great Migration as it bears on the mournful sounds of the gospel blues and its gender-inflected beginnings. The history of early gospel, I argue, was profoundly influenced by black women’s sympathetic identification with the experiences of migration and mother-loss Nettie Dorsey’s death represents. While Thomas Dorsey is distinguished as “the father of gospel music,” Nettie Dorsey might be fruitfully imagined as the spectral “mother” of gospel in its mournful expressions of black women’s spiritual consciousness. As such, she stands in for an alternate history of modern gospel musicality, one helping African American religious and musical history see and hear better what Emily Lordi calls “black feminist resonance” in black musical production in the golden age of gospel.
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