HISTORY LEFT IN RUINS
Gospel music loses its storied birthplace
By Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic. Tribune staff reporter Gerry
Doyle contributed to this report
Published January 8, 2006
Precious few spots on Earth can be called the birthplace of an entire art form.
Pilgrim Baptist Church, which burned down Friday afternoon, was one of them.
In this sacred space--on the South Side of Chicago, at 33rd Street and
Indiana Avenue--a former blues musician who turned to God invented a
sound that would enrapture listeners around the world and baptized it
In this massive edifice, gospel visionary Thomas A. Dorsey trained
generations of singers, starting with the greatest one of all, Mahalia
Jackson. A galaxy of gospel stars earned their fame at Pilgrim
Baptist, among them James Cleveland, the Edwin Hawkins Singers,
Albertina Walker and the Barrett Sisters.
The fire that broke out at 3 p.m. Friday, possibly while workers were
making repairs on the roof, according to fire officials, destroyed
ground zero for an art form indelibly associated with Chicago.
"It's like a death to the community," said Rev. B. Herbert Martin, of
Progressive Baptist Church, who has preached at Pilgrim Baptist.
"We've lost something very great that was a part of our [gospel]
establishment," said Pam Morris, producer of the Chicago Gospel
Festival and a gospel broadcaster.
"All of it is gone. It's gone. We don't have that platform to sing anymore."
Cultural tourists from several continents routinely made pilgrimages
to Pilgrim Baptist to behold the place where a rousing, life-affirming
music first came into its own. Celebrated in feature films such as
"The Blues Brothers" and in documentaries such as "Say Amen,
Somebody," gospel has been as deeply stitched into the fabric of the
South Side as jazz and blues, if not more so.
The origins of jazz can be traced to 19th Century New Orleans and
scholars believe that elements of blues have echoed through African
music since antiquity, but one man and one church are widely
considered the progenitors of modern gospel music.
`It had that beat'
Dorsey may have seemed an unlikely founder of a spiritual art form,
having made his living touring saloons and honky-tonks as a piano
player for blues queen Ma Rainey, when he traveled under the name
But after attending the National Baptist Convention in Chicago in
1921, he became intrigued with the gusto of religious music. Even so,
he rebelled against its foursquare rhythms.
"I wanted to get the feeling and the moans and the blues into the
songs," he once told the Tribune.
"Before that, they would sing `Spiri-tu-al-fellow-ship-of-the-Jor-dan
land.' Jubilee songs. Wasn't nothing to them.
"But then I turned those blues moans on, modified some of the stuff
from way back in the jazz era, bashed it up and smoothed it in. It had
that beat, that rhythm. And people were wild about it."
Not everyone. The elders at the South Side churches where Dorsey
attempted to bring this music vigorously rejected it, calling it
blasphemous, Dorsey often recalled.
The setback gave him pause, and he didn't wholly commit himself to the
music--and find a home for it in Pilgrim Baptist--until he lost his
wife during childbirth and their baby a couple of days later, in 1932.
"I had my life's hope in the baby," Dorsey once said. "I lost quite a
bit of trust. I lost a lot of confidence in the Lord or somebody. It
was quite a while before I could get myself together.
"And when I got myself together, then I became more prolific in
writing than ever before," added Dorsey, son of a Baptist minister and
grandson of a slave.
"After the baby died, that's where I got `Precious Lord,'" Dorsey
said, referring to perhaps the most beloved gospel song of all,
Dorsey's magisterial "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
Recognizing a genius
Pilgrim Baptist's famous pastor, the brilliant orator Rev. J.C.
Austin, instantly saw the genius of Dorsey's work, as well as its
potentially galvanizing effects on a congregation, and welcomed him.
Before long, Pilgrim Baptist--doubly blessed with Austin's fiery
sermons and Dorsey's blues-laced gospel music--became a focal point
for black life in Bronzeville.
"On Sunday, there were people standing alongside the walls,"
centenarian parishioner Mary Lewis told the Tribune in 1998. "All the
seats upstairs were filled, and they put chairs down in the aisles.
"If you weren't in church by 10 o'clock in the morning [for the 11
a.m. service], you wouldn't get a seat."
In effect, Pilgrim Baptist emerged as a spiritual home for waves of
African-Americans pouring into Chicago from the South during the Great
Migration before, during and after World War II.
But the church also became the base from which Dorsey popularized
gospel music. It was at Pilgrim Baptist that he trained singers to
perform his gospel tunes, including such enduring works as "When I've
Done My Best," "Search Me, Lord" and "There'll Be Peace in the
The increasing popularity of his songs, which in some quarters became
known simply as "Dorseys," attracted to Pilgrim Baptist new
generations of future stars, including Sallie Martin, Roberta Martin
(no relation) and Clara Ward.
This music hardly could have been performed in a more felicitous
setting, the horseshoe-shaped, wraparound balcony bringing choir and
congregation unusually close to each other for a sanctuary capable of
End of an era
The decline of the neighborhood when middle-class blacks and whites
began to leave in the 1960s did not augur well for the church, and the
death of Austin in 1968 and the retirement of Dorsey in the 1980s
brought an era to a close.
The church rarely was crowded anymore, though the place briefly teemed
with life once again for Dorsey's funeral service in 1993; he died at
Now, the building in which Dorsey birthed an art form is gone as well.
A place such as Pilgrim Baptist, Pastor Martin said, serves as "the
spiritual nursery for the community and neighborhood.
"Historically and culturally, it's going to be a tremendous loss."