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Inside "When Swing Was King"

Dear friends of Vital Signs Ministries,                                                            March 2017        

             “This Ole House” was a blockbuster hit record in 1954 for Rosemary Clooney.  It reached #1 on the charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom and was a springboard for Rosemary Clooney’s long and very successful career. The song, as some of you old timers may remember, was actually a spiritual song, telling as it did the confident expectations of an old man nearing death and therefore getting ready for heaven.  But the assurance, the joy, and the clever use of an old house as a metaphor for age resulted in an upbeat and extremely popular song.          

This ole house is afraid of thunder.

This ole house is afraid of storms.

This ole house just groans and trembles

when the night wind flings its arms.

This ole house is gettin' feeble.

This ole house is needin' paint.

Just like me it's tuckered out,

But I'm a-gettin' ready to meet the saints.


I ain't a-gonna need this house no longer.

Ain't a-gonna need this house no more.

Ain't got time to fix the shingles.

Ain't got time to fix the floor.

I ain't got time to oil the hinges,

nor to mend the window panes.

Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer.

I'm a-gettin' ready to meet the saints.


            “This Ole House” was in the February “When Swing Was King” playlist and the audiences loved it. (By the way, our count for the month was 262 people. Nice.) The residents of the 12 senior care facilities sang along with the lyrics, tapped their toes in cadence with the music, and gave us enthusiastic applause at the song’s end.  There were several other songs in the February program that the crowds loved, including “Glow Worm” by the Mills Brothers, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” by Ethel Merman, “Blue Skies” by Artie Shaw, “I Had the Craziest Dream” by Harry James and Helen Forrest, and many others.  But “This Ole House” had a very impressive effect.  

            Perhaps my introduction to the song helped that along. I share that part of my narration below in hopes that you find it interesting in its own right, but also to show you how we are always looking for opportunities to let our light shine for Jesus Christ in this unusual outreach.  And so, picking up my narration from after the previous song, I would say something like this:

            And that was the King of Swing himself, Benny Goodman, with a big hit from 1937, “Here’s Love in Your Eyes.” Okay, we have just two more songs in this month’s edition of “When Swing Was King” and they are both lollapaloozas from the early 1950s.  This next song has a very interesting story.  It was written by a former cowboy singer and songwriter named Stuart Hamblen, a fellow who had been around for quite awhile.  In fact, Hamblen was the very first artist ever signed by Decca Records back in 1934.  He enjoyed some success in his music career – he did a bit of cowboy acting too – but his main claim to fame came later when he was the #1 radio personality in Los Angeles.  However, along the way, Stuart Hamblen had some deep problems in his life.  He was a drinker, a gambler, and a public brawler who ended up several times in jail. 

            Well, everything changed for Stuart Hamblen in 1949. Guess who came to town?  None other than the evangelist Billy Graham who was holding one of his first open-air crusade meetings.  Now you’ve all seen Billy Graham on TV and you know how it works.  Graham explains the gospel -- how Jesus Christ died to forgive sins and give believers the power to live a new life.  Well, that old cowboy Stuart Hamblen was one of those who took that walk forward out of the grandstands and towards the podium to signal that he wanted the salvation Jesus offered.

            And, as I said, everything changed dramatically for Stuart Hamblen from that moment. He was a thoroughly converted man. Among other things, he stopped drinking and fighting, and he switched from writing songs about drinking and cheating to writing songs about his Christian faith.  One of those songs was one I’m sure many of you know well, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.”  I see several of you nodding your heads.  It’s a beautiful song.  But what I bet you don’t know is that the title of that song was suggested to Stuart Hamblen by a buddy of his that he went hunting with, a fellow by the name of John Wayne.  Yeah, that John Wayne.

            But let’s get back to the song we’re going to play for you now.  It was the most popular song Stuart Hamblen ever wrote and one of the biggest hits of 1954.  It’s a song that talks about an old man who is nearing the end of his life but who is confident of trading in his frail and failing body for a brand new one when he goes home to heaven and meets the saints. So, here from 1954, is a huge hit from a gal who was my dad’s favorite singer, Rosemary Clooney. The title? “This Ole House.”        

            After the song plays, I say…

            Isn’t that a great song!  Stuart Hamblen’s “This Ole House” sung by the fabulous Rosemary Clooney.  You know, I should finish the story on Mr. Hamblen and Billy Graham.  The two men became good friends.  Indeed, because Hamblen was such a well-known and influential person, Graham credited his conversion to Christianity as a key reason that the media started reporting on his preaching crusades.  And in 1989, when Stuart Hamblen passed away, it was Reverend Graham who gave the eulogy at his funeral.

            Oh, and one more note about that song -- that terrific bass line in “This Ole House” was provided by a fellow named Thurl Ravenscroft who, interestingly enough, was also a devoted Christian.  The thing is you’ve all heard that rich, deep bass voice of his before.  He was part of a vocal group called The Mellomen who backed up a lot of singers including Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, and a lot of Frankie Laine’s cowboy songs.

            But, even though you didn’t know it, you probably hear Mr. Ravenscroft every Christmas if you sit down with your grandkids to watch “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”  For it is Thurl Ravenscroft who sings “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”  And, oh yes, you’ve heard him also on hundreds of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercials for it was Ravenscroft who was, for decades, the voice of Tony the Tiger telling you how grrrreat the cereal was!

            Alright, let’s go ahead and play the final song in this edition of “When Swing Was King.” It’s a #1 hit from 1952, a fun song that features perhaps the most clever lyrics ever penned by that genius wordsmith Johnny Mercer.  Here is The Mills Brothers with “Glow Worm.”        

            Now, let me be quick to remind you that “When Swing Was King” is foundationally an entertainment program.  We carefully choose and edit the 12 songs and the hundreds of photographs needed for each edition. We also carefully research the history of the music and musicians in order to present an informative and fun narration to accompany the show.  For we are committed to giving the residents, their family members, and the officials of the various senior care facilities exactly what we promise – a terrific “sentimental journey” to the past that stimulates seniors via visuals, audio, memory enhancement, the spoken word, and the development of personal friendships.  And we have done that to such a high quality that the activities directors love it and the residents continue to name “When Swing Was King” as their favorite social program.          

             But do we care about making the program more than just entertainment? Do we try to create a ripple effect through “When Swing Was King” that promotes the cause of the gospel and gives opportunities to minister other spiritual graces?  Yes, of course.  Indeed, this desire fuels much of what we do in all of our life and ministry -- our public pro-life witness, our relationships with family and neighbors, our letter-writing, our literary efforts, our social media, even in the conversations I start with people I meet when I’m out walking.  But, to truly please the Lord, we must be sure that the “work of our hands” is in itself the best that it can be. We give our audiences what we promise; namely, the very best entertainment and musical therapy program we can. Thus, we show our best to the watching world and we show the Lord that our work is part of our faithful worship of Him.        

             But, with that established, how do we try for those spiritual ripple effects through our “When Swing Was King” outreach?

            1) Developing personal friendships. 

            This is the key reason we go to the same 12 facilities every month.  For over time we have made good friends with residents and staff.  And sincere friends naturally talk about the things most important in their lives.  They tell their stories (including, as in our case, our conversions to Christianity, our priorities, and our other duties with Vital Signs Ministries) and friends speak of needs, troubles, joys, and requests for prayer.

             And these friendships then connect to other things.  Like being asked by staff to pray for dying residents.  Like being asked by family to perform a funeral for a resident we had befriended.  Like being asked to a “coffee klatch” to talk about Vital Signs Ministries. Like recording music, making gifts, baking dessert treats, personal visits, and more.

             2) The Christmas program

            The Christmas edition of “When Swing Was King” gives plenty of opportunities for our audiences to consider the challenge (and comfort) offered by Jesus.  The program involves the same big band music as our regular shows but half of the songs are Christmas carols; carols that are rich in biblical theology, beauty, and personal meaning.  The pictures shown with these carols also depict the “Reason for the season.” So too does my narration for that show.  Yes, we find chances to speak of “the hope that is in us” throughout the year, but there’s no doubt that our Christmas “When Swing Was King” is our most overtly-Christian witness.    

            3) The quarterly “When Swing Was King” newsletters.

            We told you a few LifeSharer letters ago about this new outreach that features big band trivia, a 10-question quiz, seasonal quotations and Scripture verses, and a short personal column from Claire and me.  It is yet another way to expand the entertainment value, the personal friendships, and the spiritual ripple effects of our ministry in the senior care facilities. Plus it helps promote the “When Swing Was King” shows to residents who haven’t yet attended one. We have, so far, passed out 2 editions of the newsletter and they have been very appreciated.

               4) Special History Shows.

            This is our newest spinoff. It is something that capitalizes on the interest audiences have shown in my narrations that accompany the “When Swing Was King” shows.  Those narrations feature solid historical research but they are definitely presented with entertainment in mind…and with an eye to the unique interests of our audiences. So we are now offering the activities directors the chance to add to their program calendars some Special History Shows that I’ve created. Some of them include PowerPoint illustrations. But all of them will not only serve to inform and entertain but to also allow the slipping in of Christian testimonies and other spiritual truth.  Among these Special History Shows are “Queen City Saints: An Anecdotal Religious History of Omaha,” “The Freedom Train of 1947 & 1948,” “The Big Band Wordsmiths: Who Wrote Those Great Songs?,” and “Reel vs. Real: What the Movies Get Wrong About the Old West.”  If the idea goes well, I’ll develop some others.  And, oh yes, we are also offering to read some of my history-oriented short stories if they’re interested.    

             Okay, I think that’s plenty on the topic of “When Swing Was King” but I’m afraid it leaves me little time to speak of other matters.  I do have enough space before I close, however, to ask for continued prayers for our pro-life witness in front of Planned Parenthood, our next letter-writing meeting on Monday, March 20th (you’re invited, of course!), my work on a new writing project, grand success for the upcoming fund-raising banquet for Assure Women’s Center featuring Tony Evans, and all the day-to-day grace needed for Claire and I and Vital Signs Ministries. Thank you so much for those prayers and for all of your support of this work.      

             Until next month,