On a late summer day in 1963, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the National Mall before hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered to march for freedom, justice, and equality. On that day, Dr. King shared a dream that has continued to inspire a Nation: To bring justice where there is injustice, freedom where there is oppression, peace where there is violence, and opportunity where there is poverty. Today, people of all backgrounds continue that march — raising their voices to confront abuses of power, challenge hate and discrimination, protect the right to vote, and access quality jobs, health care, housing, and education. As we enter the new year and in anticipation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we will be discussing a topic that not many people know, his favorite song.
What Was His Favorite Song?
Dr. King’s favorite song was the famous gospel song Take My Hand, Precious Lord by Thomas A. Dorsey. King often requested this song to be performed at rallies and marches to inspire his followers. A little known fact, his last words before his assassination were actually a request for musician Ben Branch to play it at a service he was due to attend that very night. King's exact last words were "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty." In April 1968, legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performed the song at King’s funeral. The song itself however, has a long history prior to its association with King. Let's first take a listen to the proclaimed song then delve a little deeper into its personal history with King and Jackson, and afterwards, we’ll go into details about the history and origin of the song itself.
Personal History of the Song With King and Jackson
We know the song itself was very heavily associated with Mahalia Jackson - it became her signature song in the 1940s. Therefore, King must’ve heard the song at some point as he was growing up and working towards becoming a minister. Once the civil rights movement began, Jackson grew close to King and sang at rallies beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, as well as the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom of 1957 in Washington DC. Whenever King had events in Chicago, he would actually stay with Jackson. Prominent singers such as Jackson who were originally not a part of the gospel scene eventually interconnected with preachers and the church to show their support for the civil rights movement.
Touching more on the association of the song with Jackson, why was this song so connected to her when there were many other gospel songs she could sing? There was a special way she delivered this particular song due to her own struggles with race as well as her husband’s, who wanted her to pursue R&B. She instead chose a more religious route, singing this song in a way that really connected with her audience and very well may be the reason why King adored her rendition of it.
History and Origin of the Song
Let’s now get into the history of the song. The composer of the song was Thomas A. Dorsey who had an interesting history himself. He was known (and often “accused” more aptly!) of bringing R&B music into the church. Dorsey wrote this song in 1932 while he was on a gig. During that gig, he received word that his wife had gone into labor. On his way back he then received word that his wife had passed away with child, and immediately began to write down what would become the lyrics to the song. Unfortunately due to the chords and musicality behind the song, it at first was not accepted in the churches for being too bluesy.
Even though the song itself has blues influence, it is actually quite a simple song with just three chords. This, in some ways, adds to the power of the song and adds meaning behind its simplicity and lyrics. The simplicity of the song means that the singer has to embellish and improvise upon it, which in turn makes it a platform for the singer to “bear witness” to the song. The way the singer chooses to phrase the lyrics or embellish the melody, the feeling that is there when they sing… this ultimately tests the power of the singer to embody the song in a moving and impressive way, such as how Jackson has sung it.
Many of the songs from the civil rights movement were more modern creations adapted from hymns. However, this song was not. This song more or less stayed in its traditional hymn form and was sung at rallies alongside the adapted hymns. This may be due to the powerful and profound words of the song itself which has stayed within the minds of millions of people and has since become an international song, even being sung in different languages around the world.
If we go back to the civil rights movement, the lyrics of the song spoke to much of what was going on during this time. It was very scary for many individuals to risk their livelihoods to go and march during the movements. Part of the preparation before marching was usually a mass meeting at the church the night before where people sang songs to help find the courage to go out during the demonstrations. The lyrics give a great summary of its influence during this difficult time.
This is exactly why this song has so much significance and has had many renditions be performed up until this day. Some of the more popular renditions include the ones sung by opera singer Leontyne Price, who sang it at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973, and Aretha Franklin who sang it at Mahalia Jackson's funeral in 1972. It was sung by Nina Simone at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, three days after King's assassination. It was also performed by Ledisi in the movie and soundtrack for Selma, in which Ledisi portrays Mahalia Jackson. Beyoncé even performed it at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards on February 8, 2015. Dave Grohl also recited the lyrics of the song at a remembrance service for his friend, Lemmy from Motörhead, in January 2016.
Let’s take a listen to some renditions performed by various singers!
It’s amazing that this song, as old as it is, rooted in religion, and with a hard personal story, has remained so significant. It became Mahalia Jackson’s signature song throughout the 1930s and 1940s as she toured with its composer Thomas A. Dorsey, making the song associated with her. Thus, the song became deeply connected with Dorsey and Jackson and then became deeply connected with her and King. This sums up the great courage, spirituality, ethicality, and morals of Martin Luther King Jr. that have never been surpassed. The timeframe in which Mahalia toured with Dorsey is especially interesting since this was a time when America was extremely divided. There weren’t any civil rights laws at the time, which made their constant faith in believing and continuing with what they sang and fought for very powerful. This same constance can be seen again with King in his consistent preaching of the use of non-violence. The whole moral message of what King stood for in non-violence against the treatment they were enduring modeled a better morality and ethics, which was not only about lifting African Americans up, but also about lifting white people up to begin to open their eyes to the effect of racism on everyone.
It’s also important to remember that the whole gospel world that Dorsey, Jackson, and King came out of was very much the organizational backbone of the civil rights movement. It was a world that White people didn’t really know about, but preachers circulated for revivals along with singers and musicians. Ultimately this created an entire network that established this music and its message of striving for civil rights which began to quietly circulate and become known nationally, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Since this was King’s favorite song and it was the last thing that he asked for, it instills a certain kind of reverence. To have preached a sermon the night before his assassination and then to request this song to be played moments before his passing is very deep, and some might even say it’s spiritual. Take My Hand, Precious Lord with its profound lyrics was a very powerful song for King as well as it being a personal testimony; it has stood the test of time and will continue to remain a significant piece of history.