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In this story from January 1959, the beloved singer and actor shares how his dad's joyous faith impacted his own life.
When I was a kid our family had a rough time financially. As they say down in Bristol, Tennessee, where I grew up, we just “never seemed to get a horn that blowed.”
Dad was in the postal service. He started out with a rural horse and buggy route, then graduated to town and walked his route for 17 years, most of which were pretty lean.
Yet we kids never thought of ourselves as poor, because my dad had a faith so geared to appreciation and joy that we thought we were pretty near on top of the world. If he couldn’t give us things, he gave us what was a sight better, practical lessons in how to live.
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First off he’d tell us: “Learn to look around you, see and appreciate the bounty of God.” He was talking about the world God made without any help from us. Ever since, I’ve always figured that an atheist was a guy who’d never been deer huntin’, or blackberryin’ or pea pickin’.
Because there’s a terrific lot of beauty around and a lot else to appreciate that’s for free ... things we couldn’t make and that we had nothing to do with putting there. Seeing this beauty and the free gifts of the earth and sky put joy in our hearts–and then we had to share that too.
One of Dad’s favorite illustrations was to remind us of the fact that we had liberty and the guys down in the town jail didn’t. Also, that we had a lot of free music in us, pretty good music, too, because we practiced both at home and in the church choir.
Then on frequent occasions we would all go down to the jail, Dad, us boys, Mother, too, and we’d stand in the hall and sing–folk songs, ballads, hymns, (a lot of hymns)–because Dad thought they were the best for cheering people up.
At other times we would load up our old car with baskets of things from our own garden and our neighbors’ gardens, plus fruit and stuff my mother had canned, plus game we’d bagged out hunting. Then we’d drive to the edge of town where the less fortunate people lived.
After we unloaded our baskets, we’d sing for them.
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One man, who had been in the jail on one of our hymn singing nights, came ‘round to see Dad when he got out. He allowed as how he was a vagrant, a bum, a petty thief, and a drinking man when he could afford it. But he’d been attracted by the robust good cheer of our hymns.
“That I liked,” he admitted, “but this regular religion stuff cramps your style. It keeps you from having any fun!”
“Don’t you believe it,” roared my dad. He was six-feet-two, slender, and his enthusiasm for living had a way of vibrating in his voice. When it did, he seemed eight feet tall.
“Why, man, God has given us all these things to enjoy! We’re supposed to enjoy ‘em. You go over-doin’ things, though, and you’re bound to get sick, or a hangover. But you use a little of the common sense God gave you, along with His other gifts, and you won’t wear a long face. Religion is a real happy thing!”
It sure was a load off that guy’s mind. And he proved it was true, too, because he settled down in our town to work, and he joined the church. He had a lot of fun, too.