My Pop Life #207 : How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

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How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

Then sings my soul, my saviour God, to thee

How great thou art, how great thou art

*

It’s a christian hymn.  I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when this song became part of my consciousness, but it was via my wife’s parents, in the 1990s, at a church, in London, of that I am certain.

I became the luckiest man on earth when I married Jenny Jules.  Not only because she is so special, the kind of person that pours forth light and love over whoever happens to be with her, but because that light & that love come from her parents who received me into their family as a son, and who have loved me ever since that moment.

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Thomas & Esther Jules

It may have been a christening service, Mollie & Pete’s wedding, Anthony’s wedding or possibly even a funeral.  I heard the choir singing it, and the congregation including Mrs Jules, Jenny’s Mum,  with her beautiful clear soprano.  The melody is superb and it has since become one of my favourite church hymns (I last wrote about hymns in My Pop Life #127).  Although I am an avowed atheist I don’t mind going to a christian service as long as the pastor doesn’t start moralising too heavily, as happened at one of the children’s christening services in the Stonebridge Church where Mr & Mrs Jules worshipped regularly.  Quite shocking judgemental crap about women who use assistance in getting pregnant as I recall, not from the regular priest, but it illustrated the dangers of christianity for me quite clearly.

However.

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The dashing young couple from St Lucia shortly after they met in London

The parents, (the parentals, The Rentals), Tom and Esther, both came to Britain by sea from St Lucia over 50 years ago and met each other in Paddington which had quite a decent St Lucian community in those days.  In the early days of my life with the Jules family, they lived in the shadow of Wembley Stadium in the London borough of Brent.   My wife Jenny is right in the middle of the brood, with two older sisters Dee & Mollie, plus one brother Jon and two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy.  If I start using nicknames now it will all get very confusing.   But my early nickname was Jean Blanc.  Said with a French accent please, because St Lucian patois is french at the root.  At least I think that was the name, it could have been Gens Blanc but that would have been weird.

It didn’t really stick as a nickname longer than five years or so, after which I became Ralphie or as Mrs Jules would say it : Waffee.  I can tell that she loves me when she says it because she kind of sings it with a big smile on her face.   We call them a variety of names themselves but I’ll stick with Grandma & Grandad for now because since the little ones started to come along (around the time I joined the family) that’s what they have been.  So Tom and Esther = Grandad and Grandma.  They welcomed me with warmth and love from the very beginning, although I remember Grandad, at our wedding, laying an ancient father’s curse on the next two in line Mandy and Lucy with a warning to anyone who wanted to marry his two youngest that they were not available.

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Lucy, Mandy, Latifah, Jenny, Mollie, Dee.  

Grandma worked at Marks & Spencer for most of her working life which she enjoyed very much.  After retiring she started to enjoy making elaborate cakes, whether for special birthday occasions or weddings, or her famous and sacred black cake for Christmas, carefully wrapped in tinfoil and clingfilm to keep the treasure inside. Quite the best cake I have ever eaten.  Grandad was a drummer in St Lucia but gave that up as he made the crossing and spent his working life with London Transport as an engineer in the bus garage at Brent Cross.  Now retired, he still gets up every morning at 6am to make coffee and wake the various members of the family for work, including me when I stay over – tap tap on the door – “Ralphie ? Good morning.  Coffee.”  Bleary-eyed me : “Thank you Grandad”.  Then it is down the shop for the Daily Mirror – they are both socialists and republicans – and a good hour of checking the form of the horses that day, then to the Betting Shop for a small wager.  TV is a big favourite of them both too, Channel Four racing then re-runs of Dynasty or Bonanza or other 1980s shows. They bicker if they have an audience, making jokes at each other’s expense for our amusement.

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Grandad is a brilliant storyteller and dinner time (or lunchtime) is a family moment for a tale of something he saw, something that happened, always hilarious.  Such as the car which said, as he passed it “You are standing too close to this vehicle!  Please move away from this vehicle!”.  He loves that story.  He is incredibly fit for his age – he is into his 80s now – and doesn’t look a day over 55.  They’re both young for their years and completely family-centred, never happier than when the daughters bring their (now grown-up!) children and their children round.  Molly’s eldest Dominique has two beautiful children Tia & Kian, and two other daughters : my god-daughter Kimberley and Courtnie plus Robert whose birth I wrote about in My Pop Life #123.  Dee had Thomas, Jamie & Jordan and now  Thomas & Scarlett in turn have Skye & Lua.  Generations!  Brother Jon has three children but a schism in that marriage means that they are rarely seen.

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Grandad and Grandma can often be found listening to various kinds of music, let’s see : Jim Reeves is a favourite, Al Green and Perry Como; more left-field is Mexican-American tejano and country musician Freddy Fender;  their religious music, and then St Lucian and Trinidadian quadrille and soca – Caribbean dance music derived from calypso.  Downstairs in the kitchen the radio is on all day, tuned to Smooth FM usually, and that part of family life is deeply familiar to me !

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Waffee and Grandma

Grandad & Grandma are both Catholic and deeply involved with their local church, singing in the choir, organising the collection and other behind-the-scenes stuff.  When they are in St Lucia where they have built a house in the village of Mon Repos, there is a church just down the road and we all went there one Christmas to listen to the Filipino priest sermonise us with love.  In 2007 in fact I decided not to go to the Christmas morning service because I’d done it once and not really enjoyed it.  Everyone knew I wasn’t a christian so it wasn’t too rude to swerve.

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Extended family in Mon Repos, St Lucia

But my god-daughter Chloe was with us that year, and she wanted to talk to me about it.  She was 13 and wasn’t at all sure if she believed in God.  I think she was being polite and had already decided that she didn’t to be honest.  Her Mum Maureen was going, so was Jenny, Mandy, Lucy, Robbie, Dee, Jamie, Jordan, Thomas, Scarlett, Grandad and Grandma.  I wasn’t, and Chloe decided bravely to join me in sitting it out.  I had realised at around 8 or 9 years old that I didn’t believe in the stories I was being told by the vicar or anyone else and when it was time for me to go to Big School in Lewes aged 11, I took the opportunity to drop Sunday school finally.

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Chloe in St Lucia Christmas 2007

But christian music is something else entirely.  I’m a believer.  From the gospel of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day (My Pop Life #199) to Sam Cooke, Al Green, Paul Robeson, Monteverdi or Bach (My Pop Life #76) it is some of the most moving and uplifting music you can find.  I bought Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1993 when we lived in West Hollywood and much to Jenny’s dismay played that tramp singing his faith every day for a couple of months.  When I was looking online for a version of How Great Thou Art I was astounded to find thousands of different renditions, according to Wikipedia there are 1700 recorded songs at least.  Which puts it up there with Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust or The Beatles’ Yesterday.

It’s a relatively new song : composed as a poem in 1885 by Swedish Pastor Carl Boberg, it travelled via Estonia and Russia to then be translated into English by missionary Stuart Hine who added two verses of his own.  The melody is either Russian or Swedish depending on who you read.  It became popular in the 1960s when evangelical preacher Billy Graham used it at his giant tent meetings and has since been covered by all and anyone, from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to Gladys Knight, Al Green and most famously Elvis Presley who made his 2nd gospel LP in 1967 and called it How Great Thou Art.

I chose The Statler Brothers out of the dozens that I’ve listened to today (it’s proper work this blogging y’know!) because it approximates most closely to the version I hear in my head.  Not too slow, like Mahalia Jackson or Elvis. Not a solo voice (as beautifully as Tammy Wynette or Gladys Knight sing it).  Not too many gimmicks or personal touches.  Not over-produced.  Just a lovely four part harmony delivered straight by a country gospel quartet who often backed Johnny Cash.  But so many to choose from….  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Mahalia Jackson.  Pentatonix.  Carrie Underwood.  Alan Jackson.  Dolly Parton.  Donna Summer.  Charlie Daniels.  Johnny Cash.  Willie Nelson….Some of these are attached so feel free to let me know your favourite in the comments below this blog.

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So in fact I may have heard it earlier in my life when I was around 10 or 11 in the late 60s without knowing what it was.  Maybe.  It is an amazing song and brings tears unbidden to my eyes, but it only became a favourite via Mrs Jules.  She would sing it gently to herself while bustling around the kitchen cooking some pemé & acqua (coconut tamale & chilli fish fritters) for Good Friday, or her famous chicken (when I ate chicken!), yam, dashin, plantain, rice & peas, bwa-pain if we were lucky – breadfruit, which grows in their garden in St Lucia along with avocados and bananas.  She has cooked me, and the whole family of course, many many fine meals.  Made with love. You can taste it to be sure.  They fill their house with love and laughter and gentle humour.  They are like my mum and dad and I love them both very much and thank them forever for allowing me to marry their beautiful daughter.  How great they are indeed.

The Statler Brothers :

Carrie Underwood & Vince Gill :

Elvis Presley live in 1972 :

The Vocal Majority (extraordinary) :

the brilliant Tammy Wynette :

Alan Jackson :

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