From Down Under

 

Elvis: How Great Thou Art ?

    Part One

 by Geoffrey Mc Donnell (Australia)

 

This is a fine twentieth century hymn of praise that has become a favorite with God's people during the last three decades. Its popularity is due in large part to its wide use by favorite gospel singers, notably George Beverly Shea. Although introduced to American audiences when Mr. James Caldwell sang " How Great Thou Art " at Stony Brook Bible Conference on Long Island in 1951, it was not until Cliff Barrows and Bev Shea of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Team used it during the famed London Crusade in Harringay Arena that " How Great Thou Art " started to become universally well-known.

The original Swedish text was a poem entitled " O Sotre Gud, " written by a Swedish Pastor, the Reverend Carl Boberg, in 1886.  In addition to being one of the leading evangelical preachers of his day, Boberg was also the successful editor of the periodical Sanningsvittnet. His inspiration for this text is said to have come from a visit to a beautiful country estate on the southeast coast of Sweden. He was suddenly caught in a midday thunderstorm with awe-inspiring moments of flashing violence, followed by a clear brilliant sun. Soon afterwards he heard the calm, sweet songs of the birds in nearby trees. The experience prompted the pastor to fall to his knees in humble adoration of his mighty God. He penned his exaltation in a nine-stanza poem beginning with the Swedish words " O Store Gud, nar jag den varld beskader. "

Several years later Boberg was attending a meeting in the Province of Varmland and was surprised to hear the congregation sing his poem to the tune of an old Swedish melody.

The subsequent history of this hymn is most interesting. It is thought that soon after Boberg's version, the text was translated into German by Manfred von Glen and entitled " Wie gross bist Du. "  Later in 1925 the Reverend E. Gustav Johnson of North Park College, Chicago, Illinois, made the first literal English translation from the Swedish text. This translation is quite different from the text that we know today but may still be found in some hymnals. Johnson's literal translation of the Swedish text is entitled " O Mighty God, When I Behold the Wonder. "  In 1927 I.S. Prokhanoff came upon the German version and translated it into the Russian language.

In 1933 the Reverend S.K. Hine and his wife, English missionaries, were ministering to the people of the Ukraine. It was there they learned the Russian translation of " O Store Gud " from a congregation of Ukrainians. They remember singing it as a duet in dark, unevangelized places and the telling effect it had on the unsaved. The thought of writing original English lyrics to this song did not then occur to them -- that was to await their crossing into Sub-Carpathian Russia, where the mountain scenery was to play its part. The thoughts of the first three verses in English were born, line upon line, amid unforgettable experiences in the Carpathian mountains. (The fourth verse was written later in England.)  Thus, inspired partially by the Russian words, partially by the awesome wonder at the sight of " all the works thy hand hath made, '' the thoughts of the first two verses sprang into life in English. As Reverend Hine and his wife continued their evangelizing in the Carpathian mountains and distribution of gospels in village after village, verse three came into being.

When war broke out in 1939, it was necessary for Reverend Hine and his wife to return to Britain; now armed with these three verses, the writer continued his gospel campaigns during the " Blitz years. " The fourth verse did not come until after the war.

The tune for this hymn is an arrangement made of an old Swedish folk melody. It is typically characteristic of many other hymn tunes, i.e., " Day by Day " (No. 17) with its lilting, warm, singable simplicity. With his original English lyrics and his arrangement of the Swedish folk melody, Mr. Stuart K. Hine published what we know today as the hymn " How Great Thou Art. "  Assignments of copyrights and publication rights to an American publishing firm in 1954 helped spread the popularity of this hymn. In April of 1974 the Christian Herald magazine, in a poll presented to its readers, named " How Great Thou Art " the No. 1 hymn in America. How Great Thou Art is probably the all-time favorite hymn today. Although its origin had roots in Europe, it was not widely known until 1957, when the Billy Graham Crusade in New York City launched it on a never-ending spiral around the world. It was performed nearly a hundred times during those meetings and countless times ever since.  One cannot sing this majestic hymn of praise and adoration without realizing anew the omnipotence of the Creator who did it all.

  

How Great Thou Art



O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder                                                          Verse #1
Consider all the works Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder
Thy pow'r throu' out the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee;                                                            Chorus                                                       
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!

When thro' the woods, and forest glades I wander                                                  Verse #2
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee;                                                       Chorus #2
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!

And when I think that God His, His Son not sparing,                                             Verse #3
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on that cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee;                                                     Chorus #3
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation                                                Verse #4
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow with humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee;                                                     Chorus #4
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou Art!

 

I found it quite ‘surprising’ that Elvis not only would just pick to sing 3/8th of the total song, but that also the 1st two lines of Verse #4 would be sung by the Imperials/Stamps! It’s particularly Verse #4 where it makes MUCH more sense ( if one had heard Verse #3 explaining Christ’s death! ) Verse #2 seems less important to painting the picture. Therefore what Elvis DOES choose to sing seems to add more weight to those verses than would be otherwise in the full version. Looking at so many things in Elvis’s life it’s hardly surprising that he would choose to ‘ short-cut ’ his version to the main highlights and Also the way it is performed with Stamps singing a couple of lines adds yet another dimension. Elvis often changed words as well such as in Verse #1 ‘ Rolling ’ instead of Mighty Thunder and also typically ‘ Thy Path throughout the Universe displayed ’ in last line of Verse #1.

Elvis sang many religious songs and yet this one is as memorable as his early ‘ Crying in the Chapel ’ The last time he recorded Gospel flavoured songs in a studio was ‘ Stax’ in Dec 73 ’’ I got a Feeling in my Body ’ on Dec 10th + ‘ If that isn’t Love ’ on the final session on Dec 16th.’ Help Me ’ +’ Honkey Tonk Angel ’ are also related. In July 73 at Stax he never recorded a Vocal for ‘ The Wonders You Perform ’ which with it’s somewhat over-the-top ‘Dramatic’ weepy ballad style would have made a great ‘A’ side if he’d also done ‘ Softly as I leave You ’ on the ‘ B ’ side! (at this time Elvis was experimenting in telling Dramatic weepy songs-with spoken parts and that’s the ‘category’ that these songs fall into) Of Course Elvis might have carried it off just as well as Tammy Wynette?. In concerts “ Amen ” would be the most common hymn type Gospel song Elvis sang, whilst ‘ Help Me ’ and HGTA come next. For instance Elvis sang HGTA on 19.6.77, ‘ Help Me ’ on 20.6.77 and finally just ‘ Amen ’ during his final concert on 26.6.77.

George Hill © Charlotte, NC February 20, 1977 ( taken during HGTA finale )

During the years 1964-66 Elvis was with Larry Geller and seriously studying God - reading many books and had had an experience in the Dessert ( on the way to film ‘ Paradise Hawaiian Style ’ ) seeing a cloud shaped like Joseph Stalin that then changed to the face of Jesus in front of him. This had really given Elvis a spiritual truth. Later on before the May 66’ recording sessions could take place Elvis was found in his hotel room meditating with Larry Geller and wouldn’t come out for the recording until he was ready and his mind clear. This would be a longer meditation ( 30 minutes ) than the brief ‘ pause ’ you see Elvis do on the CBS special before going on stage in Rapid City 21.6.77. After the How Great Thou Art recording sessions Elvis briefly started to get into the ‘ Self realisation fellowship ’ under Sister Daya Mata. However the process ( and Elvis wanting quick results ) was too lengthy and so he eventually gave up on the strict regime to try and obtain Kriya. Despite Elvis’s failure to get the Kriya he kept deep respect for Daya Mata and her ‘ self realization ’ teachings.

Elvis’s Album ‘How Great Thou Art’ that came out in March 1967 and won a Grammy for best sacred performance!. Also later his other 2 Grammy awards were for ‘ He Touched Me ’ in 1972 – best inspirational performance and in 1974 again best inspirational performance for HGTA sung in his ‘ live ’ Memphis 20.3.74 show Album.

Amazingly years later Larry Geller was told by a concert fan ( Darlene ) in West Palm Beach, Florida on 12.2.77 of how hearing Elvis’s performance of How Great Thou art prevented her from committing suicide. Elvis upon hearing the story was moved- now himself looking somewhat like a Monk in his security hotel in a blue bathrobe with its hood up! Darlene witnessed Elvis’s version of HGTA performed in Charlotte in that first 1977 tour and there is no doubt that it’s  THE highlight of that 20.2.77 show!

Below I’d like to take a look at the versions of How Great Thou Art that Elvis performed and how they changed over the years. Whenever Elvis performed this song he seemed ’inspired’ and it’s easy to imagine him thinking back to his Dessert spiritual experience on the rim of the Grand Canyon  in 1965 and the Exhilaration he must have felt.                    

                                                              

J.A.T. Publishing © May 28th, 1966 R.C.A. Studio B

May 1966

Take #4 was the released Take Master, then on the ‘ Platinum ’ Cd set in 1997 we got Take #2- fairly similar but not quite as good as take #4. Takes 1 and 3 on the bootleg ‘ The How Great Thou Art Sessions ’ 2001 label ( which were false starts not full takes ) .

The fact that Elvis could record songs like HGTA in May '66 , then reluctantly record a Double Trouble poor grade movie soundtrack in June makes a contrast as strong as chalk and cheese comparing the quality of these 2 recording sessions.’ Old Mac Donald ’ can’t compare to ‘ How Great Thou Art ’. Even with the ‘ Spinout ’ Recordings at the beginning of the year or 1965’s ‘ Paradise Hawaiian Style ’ it was showing Elvis still cared, but after ‘ Double Trouble ’ it seems obvious that Elvis no longer wanted to record any more ‘ movie soundtracks ’. Fortunately the success of the HGTA Album made his return to decent recordings less than 2 years away-choosing ‘ If I can Dream ’ as a gospel/spiritual excellence in his 1968 recordings. 

According to Kathy Westmoreland Elvis had already started singing this song in the shower in Las Vegas August 1970, but it wasn’t until this 2nd tour in 1970 that it became a regular part of his act. This in my opinion raised the standard of the November shows up higher than the September tour and also he sang it in a simple way with NO exaggerated held words and ‘ Soul ’ sung as a one syllable word unlike 1971 onwards ‘ So-oul ’ 2 syllable outings.This made his performance simple and pure and a great concert highlight. Sung with the Imperials just after the introductions with a STRONG Piano sound. On tour versions usually run for around the 3 minute mark.

 

Paul Lichter © Los Angeles, CA November 14th, 1970 evening show

  November 1970 Tour : 1st ‘live’ versions (with The Imperials)

 

Here Elvis was singing this ‘ live ’ for the first time ( and must have made the Imperials feel more worthy being on tour with him ), also next season in Las Vegas at least they WERE singing some Gospel! Sung simply-straight forward with NO vocal gimmicks or exaggeration these pleasing pure versions are close to the studio recording.

 

10.11.70 Introduced by Elvis as a song he did 4 years ago. It’s sung very slowly and unfortunately the end of this performance is ‘cut’ on my tape.

11.11.70 Elvis mentions 4 years ago he won a Grammy award for a Gospel Album. During performance he asks the Imperials to ‘ Sing the song by ’ and also talks a little while they do this. However the remembrance is of a straight and strong sung version.

12.11.70 This night Elvis starts the song AGAIN as he is not satisfied with the start saying he did it in 1965 when he was a baby. Also tonight he gets the Imperials to repeat the ending last bit again to a ‘Good’ version.

13.11.70- unavailable version.

14.11.70 A/S- unavailable version.

14.11.70 E/S  tonight Elvis says he did a Gospel Album called HGTA.The gives a measured and simple performance which is well received. Sings ‘ How Deep Thou Art '. NO held notes.

15.11.70- unavailable version.

16.11.70 Elvis says he did a Gospel song in 1965! HGTA.The Imperials come in a bit too early and Elvis shouts a bit ‘ Oh my God ’, then commands a repeat of the last part again-good version.

17.11.70- unavailable version.                                                  

               

J.A.T. Publishing © Las Vegas, NV February 23rd, 1971

Las Vegas Winter 1971 Season

 

In a review of this Las Vegas Season How Great Thou Art is mentioned as THE  Flavour/Highlight of the Season!. Since this song was performed at the Majority of shows, I reckon that MOST missing unheard performances of this song would have been performed during this Winter Season, again these versions closely resemble the 1966 studio versions. Thus ( bearing this in  mind ) I am particularly ‘ upset ’ that FTD records decided to choose the 27.1.71 M/S version as a representation of this season, when in fact it would probably be one of the very worst performances this season! ( presumably the Opening Show version wasn’t useable? ).Clearly their were days/shows when it was NOT performed and January 28th + 29th were 2 of those days. Most versions were sincere and ‘ good versions ’ and now Elvis soon starts holding the word  ‘ Soul ’ into a 2 syllable performance.                                            

 

26.1.71 O/S - unavailable version.

27.1.71 M/S  “A Gospel song in 1922 won a Grammy for it-some people ask me what I’m on? What am I taking?”-false started because of not being able to see in the darkness. After a version ( in my opinion WORSE than at the 28.9.74 show ) Elvis sings ‘consider all the hands on stage has made, then tells someone to “ SHUT UP ”, talks through the Imperials Chorus singing and even laughs whilst singing!.The ending of this version ( thank-goodness ) is sung better.Elvis tries to apologize by saying ‘ hope people don’t take offence by me kidding ’. Ruins this song by non-serious singing, talking throughout and nearly falling over beforehand terrible version.

30.1.71 D/S Sung slowly VERY similar to November 1970 versions, although NOT very ‘ focused ’ at the start last 2 words are held and soul sung with 1 sylable.ok version.

13.2.71 M/S This version is sung slowly, pure and simple a very nice version like 11/70 again.

19.2.71 M/S ‘ Imperials on a Gospel song we did in 1966 ’, Sings ‘ So-oul ’ as 2 syllables and holds last 2 words of the song.ok version.

21.2.71 M/S ‘ Imperials on a Gospel song we did in 1966 ’, sings as 2 syllables Se-ee, and holds last 3 words of the song, not rushed performance and a GOOD version.

22.2.71 M/S Elvis sings Se-ee ( whilst Imperials sing more different tonight, stilted with power ).Elvis sings simply again, 2nd end singing of HGTA is up higher and an ok-average version.

23.2.71 M/S Elvis doesn’t say ‘ sing it fellas ’ tonight, but sings  Se-ee,and So-oul and ends up high as a GOOD version.

 

I find it quite incredible that after maybe? 50 versions of it during this winter 1971 season that Elvis would appear to ‘ drop ’ this song throughout his next Tahoe and Las Vegas Engagements!? I have found no-evidence that he sang it!. For his next tour J.D.Sumner and the Stamps Quartet joined him and it’s included for EVERY SHOW! This seemed to make for a superb repertoire and many excellent versions are performed WITH the Stamps to close out his 1971 tour. Just listening to any of the August compared to November shows it’s clear that the November show quality was raised up a notch by including the song ‘ How Great Thou Art ’.

NO KNOWN Lake Tahoe 1971 versions. Also NO Known Summer 1971 Las Vegas versions.( Joe Tunzi’s Elvis Sessions III states that a version IS listed in the ‘highlights’ section as coming from an  August 1971 Soundboard, but in reality it’s from the January 1971 Season.)

 

J.A.T. Publishing/Ed Bonja © Philadelphia, PA November 8th, 1971

November 1971 Tour ( with J.D. Sumner & Stamps Quartet )

 

5.11.71 –version unavailable for review

6.11.71 A/S –“ I’d like to do a Gospel song called How Great Thou Art ”  Elvis gives a measured, sincere version-‘ straight ’ and powerful without being overblown.

6.11.71 E/S – Great first tour version of The Impossible Dream, NOT on my incomplete tape.

7.11.71 – Here J.D.Sumners Bass is a very strong part of Elvis’s live version.God is sung simply NOT held at all, J.D. goes down at the end of the song.

8.11.71 – This is yet another Good version.

9.11.71 – Elvis sings up high at the end of this pretty ok version.

10.11.71 – On the Bootleg CD the ending is ‘ incomplete ’, but it is introduced as a Gospel song featuring the Stamps Quartet.God is not held, but the power at the end of the song fades slightly.

11.11.71 – This is another well sung version and here also Elvis asks J.D. to sing his part.

12.11.71 – Another good version that ‘ features the Stamps’ and Elvis emphasizes “ I see the Stars ”

13.11.71 A/S – This version is slow and carefully sung with Elvis saying “ I’d like to feature Mr.J.D.Sumner in a Gospel song we did HGTA and the Stamps Quartet.Elvis changes the words to “ I see the front rows ”- sung slowly.

13.11.71 E/S – The song is usually performed after Hound Dog and Elvis says “ Sing it fellas ” ( when it’s time for the Stamps ) Elvis sings in a nice full voice and also fractionally faster than this afternoon .This version is my Favorite of this tour.

14.11.71 – some comments ( as in the 6.11.71 version ) J.D.’s voice goes down at the end of the song-as a feature and the actual Stamps introduction comes straight after.

15.11.71 – In this show we are lucky to hear clear audience recorded sound and an excellent depth of voice from Elvis. Sincere and full of expression as Elvis says “ Sing it fellas ” This is probably my 2nd favorite version from this tour and the performance seems to be getting better as the tour went on,.

16.11.71 – sung just after the intros, but –version unavailable for review.

 

Part Two