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Singing the soundtrack of faith

POSTED: April 21, 2013 1:00 a.m.

The first church hymnal I remember was the 1956 Baptist Hymnal. I still can remember the page number of hymns in that great old book.

One of the songs not included in the book was “How Great Thou Art.” Like many churches, we had a printed version pasted on the inside cover.

I’m not quite sure when “How Great Thou Art” became a church mainstay, but I know the man who was responsible for much of its popularity.

George Beverly Shea was the featured soloist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for 60 years. When the Graham crusades began being televised in the 1950s, Shea’s rich bass voice was as much a part of the service as Graham’s strong preaching.

I think we all have our images of God. For some, God is an old guy with a long white beard.

While we saw a new twist on the image of God in the 1977 movie, “Oh, God,” I just can’t picture the almighty as George Burns in a fishing hat. I certainly can’t imagine him sounding like George Burns.

In more recent years, I’ve thought God would sound like Dr. Bruce Morgan, retired pastor of the First Baptist Church of Griffin. He has a rich, deep voice with just enough Southern flavor to make it almost melodious. Morgan makes his home now in Gainesville and I love to hear him speak. If he just says, “Good morning,” it gives me a warm feeling.

I don’t know if Morgan is a singer, but if God were singing, I think he would sound like George Beverly Shea.

There was a lot of paste used to stick “How Great Thou Art in the cover of the Baptist Hymnal and you can thank Shea for that.

My friend, Mildred Carpenter, who has sung at hundreds upon hundreds of funerals around here, says it is one of the most requested funeral songs, right alongside “Amazing Grace.”

Years ago, when I lived in Tifton, I heard a man named Millard Blakey whistle the great song. He really didn’t whistle; he warbled, a beautiful sound with a trill to it. I don’t know if Milllard was a singer, but his fine warbling of “How Great Thou Art” was as pretty as I’ve ever heard.

Elvis Presley made it a big song and sung it at just about every concert. I’ve been to funerals where the 1969 recording was played. He was backed by Jake Hess and the Imperials, and the album earned Elvis his first Grammy.

Others who have recorded the song include Carrie Underwood, Charlie Daniels and Tennessee Ernie Ford, just to name a few. It was a big song for the Blackwood Brothers. I’m distantly related and that would have been a shameless plug if the originals were not all gone.

The Statler Brothers had a version on their Holy Bible album that went to number 39 on the Billboard country music chart.

But for those of us who were watching TV in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there was none better than Shea, who died last week at the age of 104. His rich voice provided a soundtrack of comfort and inspiration to generations.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.


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