February is African-American History Month
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Favorite Hymn
By Dean McIntyre, Director of Music Resources for The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., flew to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a strike for higher wages and better working conditions by black sanitary public works employees. That day he delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, in which he talked about threats to his life.
He said: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 p.m., King was shot in the head while standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, surrounded by friends and associates. As he lay dying, he spoke his last words to his friend and musician Ben Branch, who was to perform at the event King was scheduled to attend that night. King said, "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty." (Taylor Branch, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68; Simon & Schuster, 2006; p.766).
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand" was written by Thomas A. Dorsey in 1932 following the death of his wife in childbirth and their baby shortly thereafter. The song came to him as he was playing the tune MAITLAND (United Methodist Hymnal no. 424, "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone"). With some rhythmic alteration and melodic ornamentation of the MAITLAND tune, Dorsey's version follows the original, with more substantive alterations of measures five and seven of the original. Of Dorsey's more than two
hundred songs, "Precious Lord" is the best known and most sung.
King's funeral took place on April 9, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where both King and his father had served as co-pastors. His good friend, singer Mahalia Jackson, sang "Precious Lord" at the funeral. Her performance was in the slow, emotionally expressive, quasi-recitative style that gives the singer the freedom to slide into and out of notes, add ornaments and grace notes, and extend note values according to the expression of the singer or the content of the text. Later that same day, Jackson sang the song again at a service held at Morehouse College in Atlanta, King's alma mater. It was also sung by Aretha Franklin at Mahalia Jackson's funeral in 1972 and by Leontyne Price at President Lyndon Johnson's funeral in 1973.