“Mrs. Gospel Music” bridged racial barriers

“Lead Me, Guide Me”
Doris Akers
The Faith We Sing
, No. 2214

 I am weak and I need thy strength and power
To help me over my weakest hour
Lead me through the darkness thy face to see
Lead me, O Lord, lead me.

Lead me, guide me along the way,
For if you lead me, I cannot stray.
Lord, let me walk each day with thee.
Lead me, O Lord, lead me. *

African-American gospel songwriter Doris Mae Akers (1923-1995) contributed some of the most notable gospel songs of the second half of the 20th century including “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place” (1962) and “Lead me, guide me along the way” (1953).

One of 10 children, Dot Akers, as she was known by many, demonstrated her interest in music at the young age of six, teaching herself to play the piano by ear. By 10 she had composed her first song, “Keep the fire burning in me”, and by age 12 had organized a five-piece jazz band, “Dot Akers and Her Swingsters.”

Doris Akers

In 1945 Akers moved to Los Angeles where she met some of the important names in gospel music of that era including Sallie Martin, J. Earl Hines and Eugene Douglas Smallwood. Soon after arriving she joined the Sallie Martin Singers as a pianist and singer, formed the Akers Singers, and established her own publishing company, Akers Music House.

In 1958 Akers formed the Sky Pilot Choir, the first interracial choir in Los Angeles. This choir was devoted to African-American gospel music. Hymnologist William Reynolds noted that Akers ability to capture the attention of a congregation came through “just letting go and releasing the Spirit of God.”

Many famous singers have recorded Dot Akers songs including George Beverly Shea, Mahalia Jackson, the Roberta Martin Singers, Aretha Franklin, and the Stamps-Baxter Quartet. Honors include being named the Gospel Music Composer of the Year for both 1960 and 1961. She was honored by the National Organization of Black Catholics in 1987 when they named their official hymnal after her 1953 composition “Lead Me, Guide Me.” The second edition of this hymnal is scheduled to appear in June 2012.

The refrain recognizes that life is a journey and we need Jesus with us as a companion. Stanza one acknowledges our need for Christ’s “strength and power” during our “weakest hour.” In stanza two “Satan and sin” attempt to lead us away from the “paths of righteousness.” In stanza three the poet confesses that she is “lost” without Christ’s “hand” and “blind” without “thy Light to see.” The theme is reinforced by the last line of each stanza, “Lead me, O Lord, lead me,” which segues beautifully into the refrain.

During the mid-20th century, African Americans set up their own publishing houses in order to get their music published and available. With few exceptions, white and black gospel musicians published and performed in separate spheres. Scholar Erin Stapleton-Corcoran notes, “Beginning in the 1950s Akers also published with the white-owned publishing house Manna Music, effectively bridging the distinctly separate realms of black and white gospel music that were present at that time.” One example of her success in both the white and black gospel realms is the recording by Elvis Presley of “Lead me, guide me” for one of his last films before his death. Another example is the appearance of some of her hymns, especially “Sweet, sweet spirit,” in a number of Euro-American hymnals.

Doris Akers was rewarded for her hundreds of gospel song publications by being called “Mrs. Gospel Music” by some. She was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

© 1953 Doris Akers, Admin. by Unichappell Music, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

 

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Rob Pinion
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Doris Akers was white. She might have been mixed race, but there is no indication of that. What she did do was to learn music in a black church and love everybody enough to overlook color completely except to celebrate everyone. What a gift to the world she was and is.

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