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George Beverly Shea, RIP

The hallmark voice of the Billy Graham crusades has passed at 104, after an amazingly full life. His rendition of "How Great Thou Art" is a madeleine of my evangelical youth. My first visit to Madison Square Garden (after the circus) was to a Billy Graham rally, featuring Bev Shea, Cliff Barrows, Ethel Waters and the rest. Video below -- and first thoughts: would that booming voice and tinny piano resonate with today's evangelical culture, where Broadway-style production values are the norm? RIP, indeed.UPDATE: David Neff on the story behind the hymn:

George Beverly Shea's first contact with "How Great Thou Art" dates to 1954. But the song itself dates to 1885, when Swedish pastor Carl Gustav Boberg was caught in a thunderstorm.

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Jim, are you thinking about the music with your future survivors in mind? I suppose I might like a hymn along the lines of:- life has been good - thank you God- the afterlife will be good - we hope- Christ leads us there - thank you God- one day we will all be together again - we hope

The hymn seems to have become a staple of Catholic funerals, too. I'll always remember how as the pall-bearers lifted the casket of Phil Murnion onto their shoulders and we began singing "How Great Thou Art" with full gusto, more than one of us were moved to tears.

Ditto on the funeral usage...We commended my Mother to glory with that gusto with nary a dry eye...In reading the history of American evangelism, I cannot remember his name, but it seems that Billy Sunday had a famous accompanist who paved the way for Mr Shea and that element has been a staple of large event evangelism fo 100 years...

Interesting how many Protestant and evangelical hymns have made it into Catholic usage ("Amazing Grace"?) and without too much protest. Also interesting is that whenever my evangelical relations and friends come to Mass for one family event or another they often like very much the more modern hymns, like "On Eagles Wings" and such.

Im betting Mr. Shea has been heartily welcomed into the Celestial Choir.About a decade ago, our parish church was undergoing major renovations, and for about a year we shared space with the Baptist church next door. (A very gracious offer by the congregation, and the special relationship between the two churches continues to this day.) One Sunday a visiting priest said Mass, and the entrance hymn was A Mighty Fortress. When the priest reached the altar, he said, Now Ive seen everything. Im saying Mass in a Baptist church and weve just sung a Lutheran hymn, but I know Im among Catholics. [Comedic pause.] No one is sitting in the front pews. ;)

Catholics used to be content to sing only the first verse of hymns, which caused a difficulty, unfortunately not perceived by many a choir-director, when Catholics began to sing "A Mighty Fortress" whose first verse ends: "On earth is not his equal," which refers to Satan! (Verse 2 begins: "Did we in our own strength confide / Our striving would be losing.")

For funerals, I still prefer Fanny J. Crosby's "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior." I want it as the opening hymn at my funeral:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr-o-kVcR6E

With the proper singer, "We shall walk through the valley in peace" works wonderfully, but I suppose that's true of most any hymn. I still shudder at the memory of the organist at my first cousin's funeral who played everything to roller-skate-rink time, with no expectation, or apparent desire, that anyone in the congregation might desire to sing the hymn.

When my time comes, I'm going with Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum.Or some pounding rock to send me off.

A good friend of mine wants both Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" and "The Little Drummer Boy." Go figure.

Claire: my probably survivors (I might be mean enough to survive them all!) know me well and know that, at heart, I am a Protestant Catholic. The music I have chosen reflects that so very well.And they'll realize that this bit also reflects me (it'll be on the cover of the program):PIPPIN: "I didn't think it would end this way."GANDALF: "End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."PIPPIN: "What? Gandalf? See what?"GANDALF: "White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."PIPPIN: "Well, that isn't so bad."GANDALF: "No. No, it isn't.(From The Lord of The Rings - Return of the King)

Appreciated the reference of Jim McCrea and went to Youtube and hear why you'd love that. I then spent 45 minutes checking out all those great evangelical/country hymns.. and even my 16 yer old son-- who has no particular liking for "church music" -- loved "I'll Fly Away." What is it about those evocative, if schmaltzy to some, hymns... Maybe I'd just like a song fest of all of these BEFORE my funeral...Still, I'd like the dance numbers-- "The Lord of the Dance" and "The Father Will Dance" -- send 'em out on their toes!

It is interesting to me that a number of folks have their own funerals planned. I intend to bequeath that burden to my heirs :-).Also interesting to me is the message that appears on screen: "To begin a relationship with Jesus Christ call 877-xxx-xxxx". In our Catholic parish, it's more like, "To begin a relationship with Jesus Christ, come to our inquiry session, after which we'll funnel you into the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and in a year or so, you can be fully initiated."

David: if you like what you saw/heard on Youtube, check out the Statler Brothers (esp #22):http://www.last.fm/music/The+Statler+Brothers/Gospel+Favorites(And yes, I have diverted this conversation from GBS ... would Shaw have appreciated this? ... so I'll relinquish my obsession now.)

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.