History of Hymns: 'Lead Me, Guide Me'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Lead Me, Guide Me”
by Doris Akers
The Faith We Sing, 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 twentieth century including “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place” (1962) and “Lead Me, Guide Me along the Way” (1953).
Born in Brookfield, Missouri, as one of ten 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 age ten, she had composed her first song, “Keep the Fire Burning in Me”; and by age twelve, she had organized a five-piece jazz band, “Dot Akers and Her Swingsters.”
In 1945, Akers moved to Los Angeles where she met some of the important names in gospel music of that era including Sallie Martin (1895–1988), J. Earl Hines (1916–1960), and Eugene Douglas Smallwood (1920–2005). 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 (See Boyer, 1995, pp. 208–209).
When she was told that she possessed a “magic” ability to capture the attention of a congregation, Akers dismissed it saying, “Magic, nothing—it’s just letting go and releasing the Spirit of God” (Reynolds, 1992, p. 284). 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. Akers’ 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 Lead Me, Guide Me after her 1953 composition. The second edition of this hymnal appeared in June 2012.
Like many gospel songs, “Lead Me, Guide Me” seems to have been disseminated first as a recording – in this case, a 78-rpm recording by Brother Joe May and the Pilgrim Travelers (1954) with the song “Just Call His Name” on the reverse side.
The refrain recognizes that life is a journey – a common theme in hymnody. These hymns range from “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (1762) by William Williams (1717–1791) to the anonymous early twentieth-century song, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The opening of the refrain is reminiscent of Psalm 5:8, “Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before me face” (KJV).
In “Lead Me, Guide Me,” Jesus is our companion. Stanza 1 acknowledges our need for Christ’s “strength and power” during our “weakest hour.” In stanza 2, “Satan and sin” attempt to lead us away from the “paths of righteousness.” In stanza 3, 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.
Horace Boyer describes the musical style as “a gospel song set as a lullaby” (Boyer, 1995, p. 208). The gentle-rocking ¾ musical meter establishes a slower, steady pace that allows the singer to savor the words and the journey. A harmonization by Richard Smallwood (b. 1948), the standard one used in hymnals today, captures the feeling.
During the mid-twentieth century, African Americans set up their own publishing houses to get their music published and available. With few exceptions, white and black gospel musicians published and performed in separate spheres. A few years before she composed “Lead Me, Guide Me,” Akers established a relationship with the white-owned Manna Music, a company that bridged the divide between black performers with Dorie Akers and Andraé Crouch and white gospel composers such as Stuart Hamblen and Ralph Carmichael. One example of her success in both the white and black gospel realms is the recording by Elvis Presley of “Lead Me, Guide Me” in 1971 for one of his last films before his death, Elvis on Tour (1972), in which he sings the song in an informal jam session with the Stamps Quartet. A more recent recording by Bill and Gloria Gaither demonstrates the song’s power across all gospel genres.
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.
Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Elliott and Clark Publishing, 1995).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 708.
Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje, “Los Angeles Composers of African American Gospel Music: The First Generations,” American Music 11, n. 4 (Winter, 1993), 412–457.
Robert M. Marovich, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
William J. Reynolds, “Akers, Doris,” Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere Adams (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), 284.
© 1953 Doris Akers, Admin. by Unichappell Music, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.