How Great Thou Art

How Great Thou Art
Released February 27, 1967

Track Listing:

  1. How Great Thou Art
  2. In the Garden
  3. Somebody Bigger Than You and I
  4. Farther Along
  5. Stand By Me
  6. Without Him
  7. So High
  8. Where Could I Go but to the Lord
  9. By and By
  10. If the Lord Wasn’t Walking By My Side
  11. Run On
  12. Where No One Stands Alone
  13. Crying in the Chapel

Oftentimes I wondered why people said that Elvis grew out of touch after he came back from the army and tried to sanitize his image. There’s many sonic examples of this yes, but it still wasn’t clear to me. Well, everyone, I think this one album, How Great Thou Art, is the key to this mystery. It was 1967. San Francisco was on the precipice of hosting the summer of love, and there was extreme cultural unrest in the US. So. What does Elvis do? He goes to Nashville and records a Gospel album.

Due to both the success of Elvis’ previous Gospel album, His Hand in Mine, and the fact that by the 1960s Elvis was struggling to get radio to play his music (because of the aforementioned out of touch-ness), his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, thought another Gospel album would be a good idea, since that decade saw radio stations dedicated to playing Christmas music and other Christian songs. Released on February 27, 1967, the album ended up being relatively successful, peaking at 18 on the top pop albums chart, and the title song winning a Grammy for Best Sacred Vocal Performance.

Because of my enjoyment of His Hand in Mine, I remained cautiously hopeful about the quality of How Great Thou Art. I was still worried though. Could an album that was so specifically engineered for seemingly one singular purpose (getting Elvis’ songs on the radio) have any creative clout? Well, I can happily say that Elvis proved me wrong yet again. I actually think I prefer How Great Thou Art for two reasons: the sequencing is fantastic and the standouts on this album were, in my opinion, much more affective than the standout on His Hand in Mine.

  1. How Great Thou Art

Despite its nice choral beginning I was a little disappointed in Elvis’ version of this song. “How Great Thou Art” is a gorgeous song and it’s been covered by many artists across many different genres (in my opinion the definitive version of this song was performed by Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill in 2015; absolutely ridiculous vocals here). In this version there is a very overwhelming, hypnotic piano part that goes through the whole song, I’m not sure it fits very well. Also, about halfway through the song Elvis drops out and the backup singers, The Jordanaires, take over for a bit. The second half redeems the song a little bit, with all the previously disjointed elements coming together nicely. But I am still not sure how I feel about that piano.

2. In the Garden*

This song is so beautiful and so serene. Sonically it feels like its namesake, evoking all the sounds of walking through a garden, or at least the musical equivalent to it, for example, there is a stunning soprano voice on the chorus that sounds like a fluttering bird. The song is so soft and delicate that when Elvis gets to, “He talks with me, He walks with me”, and is then joined by a choir of voices, it adds extra depth to those lyrics.

3. Somebody Bigger Than You and I

I had heard this song before from the holiday classic, “The Preacher’s Wife”, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. I much prefer that version, as Elvis is singing in a baritone voice here that is so buried in the mix that it’s sometimes hard to hear what he is singing. Houston never had that problem.

4. Farther Away

While the song starts out with a jovial piano, Elvis again starts singing so quietly you can’t hear him. This song is the longest song on the album and it feels like it too. The most exciting part of the song comes in the little pause between the words cheer and up, creating a lilt that takes you by surprise. But…that’s it. Elvis, for some reason decides to keep singing quietly on those verses and the song is wayyy too slow.

5. Stand By Me*

An immediate improvement from the last two songs, “Stand By Me” is a moment of contemplation and prayer. Elvis even made my heart skip a beat a little here. When he sang, “when I am growing old and feeble…stand by me”, it gave me the chills. Elvis would be gone just ten years after this album came out. He was 42.

6. Without Him

While it would be hard to follow such a great song like “Stand By Me”, “Without Him” actually does this well, functioning as a sort of coda to that song, especially given the shorter running time. It’s a very pretty song, but it wouldn’t be a strong pick standing on its own.

7. So High*

As indicated by the title, “So High” is the moment of jubilation we all needed! The call and response and the handclaps(!) on this song are all so awesome and infectious that I struggled to just listen and take notes. Instead, I was too busy indulging in the handclaps.

8. Where Could I Go but to the Lord

This song trades hand claps for finger snaps and a little bit of vamp. As in songs 5 & 6, 7& 8 seem to be involved in a song/coda kind of relationship. It’s almost like an echo of the previous song. Yes, the party is over, but everyone is still gonna be singing along the entire way home. I could be totally wrong on this whole coda thing but either way, this quartet of songs is proof that this album’s sequencing is A+++.

9. By and By

Another celebratory hand clap song! Just short, and sweet, and joyous.

10. If the Lord Wasn’t Walking by My Side

Call and response is again a fantastic, rousing thing. I also have to give a shoutout to the co-star of this song, the organ!

Elvis Presley, c. 1965**I.V., Credit: MPTV/ dfd-images.com ;Approval: frei ;bei Verwendung bitte Prod-Nr. angeben: cp-mptv-002

11. Run On

This is Elvis at his most judgmental, “you will pay for this”, persona. I’m not sure how I feel about it. He sounds kind of threatening? A little scary? He’s singing really fast and deep and the part of me that loves old-school Elvis is like ohhh but the other part is like nooo.

12. Where No One Stands Alone

We are back to a much more comforting, sweet Elvis which is much more my style. The final minute of this song is very powerful.

13. Crying in the Chapel*

My favorite of the most well known songs on this album, it was love at first note. It does sound serious but not somber, just a gentle, soothing advice song about going to church more. The Jordanaires sound particularly beautiful here.

Listen to How Great Thou Art Here

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