Academic journal article Southern Cultures

"A Blessing to People": Dorsey Dixon and His Sacred Mission of Song

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

"A Blessing to People": Dorsey Dixon and His Sacred Mission of Song

Article excerpt

I'm trying to serve the Lord in my weak way and trying to be a blessing to people, is what I been trying to do. In fact, I've tried to live right all my life, but, you know, we're not-going into the story about my life because I don't want that mentioned. I don't want nothing about my life wrote out, because I had it too rough in life.

--Dorsey Dixon, on a ca. 196z homemade recording

Carolina Piedmont singer and songwriter Dorsey Dixon was never supposed to live. At his birth in 1897, in Darlington, South Carolina, he was a puny, oxygen-starved baby weighing only three pounds. "I heard [my parents] tell friends and neighbors many times that I was a blue baby. Which I did not understand," Dixon explained in one of his autobiographical writings. "But I have learned that such babies requared the greatest of care by doctors and nerses, and was right up next to imposible to keep one of them from slipping out from the living. But a great unknown Power kept me. and I made it." Dixon's pious Christian parents interpreted his near-miraculous survival as a sign that God had spared him for what they frequently referred to as "a great purpose." Throughout most of his life, however, gnawing doubts about his success in carrying out his divinely ordained mission tormented him. "I do not know if I have full filled the purpose that mother and father said I was left here for or not," Dixon confessed in a memoir written when he was fifty years old. "But I do know that I have had a real tough time in life." (1)

For more than thirty-five years Dixon struggled to earn a living in the textile mills of the Carolina Piedmont, but by calling he was a guitarist, singer, and songwriter who came to believe that his special mission in life was to spread the gospel through music. A devout Free-Will Baptist and regular churchgoer, Dixon transformed accounts of small-town tragedies and national disasters into songs and poems about the wages of sin, the unknown hour of death, and the promise of eternal salvation. "Wreck on the Highway," which WSM's Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff turned into a national hit in 1942, remains Dixon's most famous composition, but many of his other songs similarly recount tragic events--millpond drownings, train wrecks, schoolhouse fires, ship sinkings, and other calamities. Such misfortunes became, in Dixon's hands, moral parables about God's wrath and the self-destructive sins of human pride and godlessness, and, as jeremiads intended to generate spiritual renewal, his songs of tragedy usually concluded with somber warnings to sinners to repent of their wickedness and lead righteous Christian lives in anticipation of heavenly rewards. Perhaps such dreadful incidents resonated with him in part because, as he made clear in his late-life interviews and two unpublished autobiographical writings, hardship and suffering deeply scarred his own life. But Dixon's religious faith and his belief in his "great purpose" sustained him throughout fragile health, bouts with chronic depression, unstable personal relationships, intense pangs of self-doubt, and--despite modest songwriting success--lifelong poverty. In many ways his ongoing financial and health problems seemed only to strengthen his abiding faith. "And friends," he once wrote, "I know that the Great Power of God help[ed] me to win in every battle that I fought to stay in the world." (2)

Beginning in 1929, Dorsey Dixon composed or arranged more than 130 sacred and secular songs, including textile-mill songs about his life as a frustrated weaver and sermonizing evangelical numbers about his beliefs as a fundamentalist Christian. As a southern working-class songwriter, he stands out "as one of the few to write and publish songs that chronicled both his occupational and his spiritual life. Several of his songs are now considered country and bluegrass standards, including "Weave Room Blues," "Intoxicated Rat," and "Wreck on the Highway" (originally rifled "I Didn't Hear Nobody Pray"). …

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