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HOLLENBECK: Internet a great tool for research, but also can perpetuate inaccurate accounts

June 2, 2011

The Internet is both wonderful and wacky. It’s great to have instant access to information that previously had to be searched out from various sources in a time-consuming — and often frustrating, sometimes unsuccessful — manner.
That’s the wonderful part.
Then there’s the wacky.
Many people believe anything that circulates through this medium, which is frightening. I don’t know if the word “myth” is the appropriate one, but I do know that falsehoods and rearrangements of truth are perpetuated through forwarded accounts that go all over the world. So many people read something — not knowing if it’s truth of fiction — but by the time the numbers get high enough, they are absolutely certain of its veracity.
“It must be so,” one will say. “I saw it on the Internet.”
An example occurred recently in a church service. As far as I know, I was the only person aware that the story being shared was not true. As far as I know, the individual told it in the name of truth; his style would not be to perpetuate a falsehood. He was simply giving some illustrative information about a favorite gospel hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
There, printed for all to see, in the composer’s space on the song in the hymnal was the name Thomas H. Dorsey.
The speaker pointed out the Dorsey name and asked if it were familiar to anyone in the congregation.
“Aren’t there some folks here who remember hearing Tommy Dorsey’s music?” was the question.
Of course, there were those who had, particularly the ones of the older generation.
And I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the famous Big Band leader — and probably brother Jimmy, too — played that familiar old hymn many times. It lends itself beautifully to the brass sound that was an integral part of the two band leaders’ music.
But the fact is that the hymn writer was not the more familiar Tommy Dorsey. This Dorsey hailed from Georgia and earned the title “the father of black gospel music.” Earlier in his life he had been a leading blues pianist known as Georgia Tom.
As formulated by the songwriter Dorsey, gospel music was combined with Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and the blues.
Dorsey was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s. “Take My Hand ... ,” his best-known composition, was performed by Mahalia Jackson and reportedly was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Another of his songs, “Peace in the Valley,” was a hit for Red Foley in 1951 and has been performed by dozens of other artists, including Queen of Gospel Albertina Walker, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his album “Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey” (1973), by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.
In any event, the right Dorsey needs to be credited with writing a beautiful, moving gospel hymn that has touched millions and will continue to do so.
The other “myth” I feel compelled to cast aside through this column concerns Stuart Hamblen, composer of “It Is No Secret,” also a favorite religious song. It’s one I’ve sung many times myself.
The story claimed that Hamblen, a Hollywood celebrity from the 1950s, was converted to Christianity as the result of a young evangelist holding a meeting in Los Angeles. Hamblen was said to have showed up drunk at the evangelist’s hotel at 2 a.m. asking for prayer, but the evangelist refused to pray for him, although he invited him in to talk.
As a result, Hamblen accepted Christ and it turned his life around, but he was rejected by Hollywood and went through hard times until a friend asked him if he missed his old life. Hamblen replied by saying “It is no secret what God can do.”
The friend thought that was a good song title and Hamblen went on to write it and it became a hit. The popular account says the evangelist who refused to pray for him was Billy Graham and the friend who suggested the song was John Wayne.  
When I read about this through an Internet message, I was instantly doubtful about the part claiming Billy Graham would refuse to pray for him. I don’t believe Billy Graham would refuse to pray for anyone, no matter what the circumstances. So I set out to find the “real” truth, which came from an account by Cliff Barrows, Mr. Graham’s longtime associate and crusade songleader.
According to Barrows, Dr. Graham was scheduled to make an appearance on Hamblen’s radio show, which was tied into publicity for the crusade, not because Hamblen wanted to poke fun at Graham. Although Hamblen was known for his hard living and drinking, he had been reared as the son of a Methodist minister and warmly welcomed the evangelist as a guest.
It was at this interview that Dr/ Graham extended an invitation to Hamblen to attend the crusade and he accepted. According to Barrows, Hamblen later contacted Graham at his hotel and asked to talk. The result was that he “surrendered his life to Christ.” 
He was not drunk and Graham did not refuse to pray for him, according to Barrows. 
Hamblen’s became the first publicized conversion from the 1949 crusade and contributed to the decision to extend the event, which lasted for eight weeks and put Billy Graham on the map.
Barrows said that it was on a street in Hollywood that Hamblen later ran into John Wayne, who asked him about the rumor around town that he’d changed his ways. Hamblen told Wayne that it was no secret what God had done for him and that he could do it for Wayne, too. 
Wayne told him that “sounded like a song” and suggested he write it.
The result was one of Hamblen’s best-known tunes, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.”  It was a crossover song that is regarded as the first to have been No. 1 in the gospel, country, and pop categories.  The original manuscript is buried in the cornerstone of one of the Copyright Buildings of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  
After his conversion, Hamblen announced that he was going to devote his time to “serving Christ” and he started a new radio program titled “The Cowboy Church of the Air,” which became nationally syndicated.
A confrontation developed with his sponsors, however, when he told them that he would refuse to advertise alcohol. His much publicized departure from the program resulted in a draft to run for president of the United States in 1952 under the banner of the Prohibition Party. He accepted the challenge, but ran fourth to Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
And the rest, as they say, is history.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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