Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “If It Had Not Been for the Lord”

History of Hymns: “If It Had Not Been for the Lord”

By C. Michael Hawn

Margaret P. Douroux

“If It Had Not Been for the Lord”
by Margaret P. Douroux.
The Faith We Sing, No. 2053.

Refrain: If it had not been for the Lord on my side,

tell me where would I be, where would I be.

Stanza One: He kept my enemies away;

he let the sun shine through a cloudy day.

He rocked me in the cradle of his arm
when he knew I had been battered and scorned.*

* © 1980 Margaret P. Douroux. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The psalms have been an inspiration to so many songs. In this case, let us start with Psalm 124:

“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, now may Israel say;
If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (KJV).

A Californian, Dr. Margaret Douroux (b. 1941) is a pioneer in the gospel music tradition. “Give me a clean heart” (1970) was her first composition. More than 200 have followed. Dr. Douroux comes from a family that appreciated gospel music. In an interview granted in 2005, she notes, “both my father and mother, Rev. and Mrs. Earl A. Pleasant, are mentioned in the Smithsonian Archives as being pioneers of West Coast Gospel Music. They were my strongest mentors.”

Her father, the Rev. Earl A. Pleasant, was a singer who toured with Mahalia Jackson. Following this, he founded the Mount Moriah Baptist Church near the Coliseum in Los Angeles. Her mother, Olga, took on musical leadership at the church, organized choirs, and taught all six children—five daughters and one son—to play the piano. Margaret was a shy organist, taking on more choral leadership in the 1960s, eventually succeeding her mentor at the church, Thurston G. Frazier. When she wrote her first song, “Give me a clean heart,” Frazier introduced it at a national gospel song convention where it took off.

Dr. Douroux holds a bachelor’s degree in music from California State, Los Angeles, and masters and doctoral degrees in education. She worked as an educational psychologist in the Los Angeles schools. She has been honored by the McDonald’s Corporation with the Golden Circle Award for Lifetime Achievements made to Gospel Music.

As the founder and CEO of the non-profit The Heritage Musical Foundation (www.hmfgospel.com) in 1983, she has taken up the cause of promoting and preserving the African American gospel music tradition with zeal. She is fond of saying: “Classical music has Carnegie Hall, country music has the Grand Ole Opry. Gospel music needs a museum and theater: the Gospel House.”

Given the African American experience in the United States, both historically and currently, it is easy to see why this community would be drawn toward Psalm 124. The refrain of the song – “kept my enemies away” – draws heavily on the first verse of the psalm. The first line of stanza one captures the spirit of much of the remainder of the psalm. The rest of the stanza, however, turns to hope and comfort.

The second stanza sings of companionship – “He never left me all alone” – and complete restoration – “He gave me peace and joy I’d never known.” The last two lines of the stanza affirm the power of prayer – “He answered when I knelt to really pray” – and final victory in overcoming all odds – “And in victory, the Lord showed me His way.” While not quoting the psalm specifically, the second stanza captures the sense of the end of Psalm 124: “the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

For a presentation by Dr. Douroux of three of her songs concluding with “If it had not been for the Lord,” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG7yFpdx-1E.

Though progress has been show in realizing her vision for the development of The Heritage Music Foundation, she remains undaunted in her recognition for the need of an institution that informs and preserves the ways in which Black music has mirrored the history of African Americans. The following quotation from an interview with www.blackgospel.com gives a glimpse of her insight into the significance of African American song and its importance in the history and identity of the Black experience in the United States:

“One of the most interesting facts I often discuss in my seminars is that the chronology of Gospel Music matches the events occurring in society. The music of Black America changed according to the landmark changes in the culture. When we were slaves, we sang a slave song that originated mostly from the pain of slavery. The song expressed the pain of slavery but also the faith that God would deliver. Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen to Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air. When we learned to read and write, we sang an educated song from the hymnbook. First, we sang the hymn imitating the European style. Then, we added our own Black music flavor. When Black America marched for freedom, we sang freedom songs based on songs from the Black Church…We Shall Over Come, Precious Lord Take My Hand [Thomas A. Dorsey, 1938], Move On Up A Little Higher [W. Herbert Brewster, c. 1946]. The contemporary song includes Traditional Gospel to Hip-Hop. From Traditional songs like, If It Had Not Been For The Lord On My Side [1980] to Contemporary Why I Sing [Kirk Franklin, c. 1993]. Black church sacred music always sings according to what is happening in the culture. We sing according to where we are.”