The Music of Pilgrim Baptist Church The Pilgrim Baptist Church's destruction by fire last week was a tragic loss to worshipers in Chicago's South Side. But the blaze also gutted a historic landmark that gave birth to gospel music.
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The Music of Pilgrim Baptist Church

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The Music of Pilgrim Baptist Church

The Music of Pilgrim Baptist Church

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It was a week ago tomorrow that the church known for giving birth to gospel music burned to the ground. Pilgrim Baptist on Chicago's South Side was an historic landmark designed in 1890 as a synagogue by architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. The outside bore their trademark archway entrances; inside, a soaring ceiling and pillars accented with gold. It became a church during the great migration when millions of black Southerners headed to Chicago, bringing along their musical traditions. One of them was Thomas A. Dorsey, a pianist who went by the name Georgia Tom, and played with blues singer Ma Rainey.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MA RAINEY: (Singing) If my man this morning standing in my door...

NORRIS: Dorsey came to faith as an adult, started composing religious songs and eventually became the musical director at Pilgrim Baptist. Robert Darden is the author of "People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music." He says it's almost impossible to overstate the importance of Pilgrim Baptist.

Mr. ROBERT DARDEN ("People Get Ready"): This is where it begins. This is the mother church of an entire genre, and because of this church, we've got rock 'n' roll. And because of this church, we have an art form that goes to every corner of the world. And without it, either it doesn't happen or it happens in a different form way later.

NORRIS: Now this church began as a synagogue, was converted to a Baptist church in the 1920s. When did gospel music really take off there?

Mr. DARDEN: It really takes off in the 1930s with Thomas Dorsey. He comes up with and names this wonderful mixture of spirituals and religious music and the blues. It becomes gospel. This church takes a chance, and it immediately catches fire. And soon he has the biggest church, choirs. And they build one of the first great megachurches in America. At one time, we're talking about 7,000 people in the congregation with speakers playing the sermon and the music to a nearly as large crowd on the streets.

NORRIS: I'd like to talk to you about what perhaps is his most famous song sang by Mahalia Jackson.

Mr. DARDEN: "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" is one of those songs that religious people like to say is anointed.

NORRIS: I didn't even have to name it. You knew what I was talking about.

Mr. DARDEN: It is the face of gospel music to most people. And he plays it for the first time within a week or two after the tragic, tragic loss of his young wife and infant son. He wrote it in response to that tragedy. He teaches it to his choir. And it doesn't get a huge response; maybe the people are just too stunned. But within a week, he was getting requests from all over Chicago for that new song, that "Precious Lord" song.

NORRIS: The seminal recording of this is by Mahalia Jackson. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm...

NORRIS: What you hear in the lyrics of this song is someone asking the Lord for help as they go through pain and as they wade through a period of pain and confusion. Mahalia Jackson is said to have sang that song almost every time she went back to Pilgrim Baptist Church. You can imagine that people are probably listening to that song right now as they try to make sense of this fire.

Mr. DARDEN: As people trying to make sense of every problem in their lives for the last 50 years. This song is universal.

NORRIS: And when you think about the artists who came through the church, as you heard about this fire and began to mourn the loss, what are some of the names that you began to think about?

Mr. DARDEN: Well, the first one I think of besides Mahalia is James Cleveland because Cleveland was the master of the great choirs. And the choirs were what fueled the music at Pilgrim and pushed it along, and Cleveland got his start accompanying Mahalia, accompanying some of the other people who played there. And since the choirs were what kept the young people engaged, that went on for quite a while.

NORRIS: Let's listen to a song by James Cleveland. And as we listen to it, describe what we might see in that sanctuary.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DARDEN: Ooh, I hate to talk over this music.

Mr. JAMES CLEVELAND: (Singing) Won't it be sad...

Choir: Sad. So sad...

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) sad.

Choir: ...if my...

Choir and Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) ...Jesus come and you won't be ready...

NORRIS: The choir comes in right behind him.

Mr. DARDEN: They're beautiful. They're all dressed in gorgeous robes. They're doing a kind of a stutter dance step in place, moving like a sea, the waves up there, back and forth very slowly. And that music is billowing out. It's filling the whole auditorium so that there's no bad seat when they're playing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) ...Jesus come and you won't be ready, children.

Choir: Sad. So sad.

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) sad.

Mr. DARDEN: And down front, Cleveland on his piano with that great rough voice of his. He's got his eyes closed and he's already sweating about two verses into it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) Some say...

Mr. DARDEN: And the choir all has their eyes closed and they're stepping back and forth under that great big dome that's behind the altar of Pilgrim Baptist.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) ...swing.

NORRIS: Where would Thomas Dorsey be in all of this?

Mr. DARDEN: He'd be leading the choir right up into the 1980s. He might be down on the piano if there's not a guest performer, but he often led it from his piano. Sometimes he went up. Even in his frail 80s, he would be up there with very small movements, a little tiny man with the odd little high-pitched voice and every eye on him because he was such an interesting little figure up there, a little wizened kind of gnome fellow with this enormous amount of love being poured out of him at any given time.

(Soundbite of music)

Choir and Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) Buddy, it's called a beat too late.

NORRIS: Among those who follow gospel music, chronicle it, study it as you do, what's the conversation right now as they talk about Pilgrim?

Mr. DARDEN: Oh, the Web blogs for black gospel have just been aghast. I think some of it is we're appalled that we didn't support it better. Sure, it's a pilgrimage and all of us go by there when we're in town. We try to go by on Sunday, but, you know, some of my friends who've been there in recent days said there's just not been many people there and the choirs haven't been the caliber what they've been in the past. So they've kind of drifted off to some of the churches that have made the transition better. But we should have done a better job. We should have started a fund long before now to get that thing up to code and we feel a little bit responsible.

NORRIS: Robert Darden, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. DARDEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: All right!

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) I--well, why don't you all sing it.

NORRIS: Robert Darden wrote "People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music" and we should say the recordings you just heard may not have been made at Pilgrim Baptist. You can find out more about them and the church at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

Choir: Lord has come.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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