Monday, April 17, 2017
Amazing Grace: The Perfect Hymn
"Amazing Grace" is one of the most popular hymns because it has a simple message and readily lends itself to being performed in different ways. It can be sung fast or slow, loud or soft. Reporter Bill Moyers once did a PBS documentary about the hymn "Amazing Grace" which included several different ways of singing the hymn. When I was in college I learned a version sung to the tune of "The Wanderer".
I have heard impressive performances played on a magnificent pipe organ and on a simple harmonica. It can be played on a heavenly sounding harp or on a jazzy trumpet. I don't know of any song I would rather hear on the bagpipes. Or, "Amazing Grace" can be sung acappella as Judy Collins did in a 1970 recording.
Some call "Amazing Grace" a white spiritual because it combines English words with an African melody. I had never really thought about where the melody came from until Larnell Harris mentioned it on one of the Gaither music programs. According to Harris the melody is an Africa sorrow chant.
John Newton, who wrote "Amazing Grace", likely learned the melody while working on slave ships and briefly being a slave himself in West Africa. When Newton wrote "a wretch like me" he meant it literally. Newton's sailing career began when he joined the crew of his sea captain father's ship. Newton served on various ships after his father retired before ending up on the slave ship Pegasus. He had so much trouble getting along with the rest of the crew that they eventually sold him to a west African slave trader who turned Newton over to his wife who abused Newton in the same way as her other slaves. After a friend of Newton's father rescued him. he returned to sailing and subsequently became the captain of a slave ship. A religious conversion eventually led him to become minister. Decades later he became a leading advocate for abolishing slavery.