Amazing Grace

by Dennis Massa

Released 2015
Released 2015
Amazing Grace Vocals, Guitars and New Arrangement by Dennis Massa. Solo Acoustic Guitar Unplugged Version.
NOTES
Amazing Grace Vocals and New Arrangement by Dennis Massa.
Sound Engineer / Edits by Maria Savio.
Recorded @ New Man Music Studio, NYC.

"Amazing Grace" is a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton (1725–1807).

Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life's path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by his recalcitrant insubordination. He was pressed (forced) into service in the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion. Whilst his boat was being repaired in Lough Swilly, he wrote the first verse of his world famous song. He did however, continue his slave trading career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying Christian theology.

Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, Newton became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with poet William Cowper. "Amazing Grace" was written to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have simply been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper's Olney Hymns but settled into relative obscurity in England. In the United States however, "Amazing Grace" was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named "New Britain" to which it is most frequently sung today.

With the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God, "Amazing Grace" is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world. Author Gilbert Chase writes that it is "without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns,"[1] and Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually.[2] It has had particular influence in folk music, and has become an emblematic African American spiritual. Its universal message has been a significant factor in its crossover into secular music. "Amazing Grace" saw a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and has been recorded thousands of times during and since the 20th century, occasionally appearing on popular music charts.

Amazing Grace was written by an Englishman who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father who took him to sea when he was 11 (“I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it,” he later wrote).

By 1745, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. At that time he wrote the autobiographical Amazing Grace, along with 280 other hymns.

Today Amazing Grace is beloved by Presidents and citizens alike and remains a go-to hymn at American funerals, because of its striking melodies and ever-popular narrative of personal redemption. The born-again Jimmy Carter was the first recent President to embrace Amazing Grace, singing it with everyone from Willie Nelson to Senate Majority leader Robert Byrd.

In recent years, the words of the hymn have been changed in some religious publications to downplay a sense of imposed self-loathing by its singers. The second line, "That saved a wretch like me!" has been rewritten as "That saved and strengthened me", "save a soul like me", or "that saved and set me free".[90] Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith characterizes this transformation of the original words as "wretched English" making the line that replaces the original "laughably bland".[91] Part of the reason for this change has been the altered interpretations of what wretchedness and grace means. Newton's Calvinistic view of redemption and divine grace formed his perspective that he considered himself a sinner so vile that he was unable to change his life or be redeemed without God's help. Yet his lyrical subtlety, in Steve Turner's opinion, leaves the hymn's meaning open to a variety of Christian and non-Christian interpretations.[92] "Wretch" also represents a period in Newton's life when he saw himself outcast and miserable, as he was when he was enslaved in Sierra Leone; his own arrogance was matched by how far he had fallen in his life.[93]
A Canadian bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace" during a memorial service, October 29, 2009, at Forward Operating Base Wilson, Afghanistan

The communal understanding of redemption and human self-worth has changed since Newton's time. Since the 1970s, self-help books, psychology, and some modern expressions of Christianity have viewed this disparity in terms of grace being an innate quality within all people who must be inspired or strong enough to find it: something to achieve. In contrast to Newton's vision of wretchedness as his willful sin and distance from God, wretchedness has instead come to mean an obstacle of physical, social, or spiritual nature to overcome in order to achieve a state of grace, happiness, or contentment. Since its immense popularity and iconic nature, "grace" and the meaning behind the words of "Amazing Grace" have become as individual as the singer or listener.[94] Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that the secular popularity of "Amazing Grace" is due to the absence of any mention of God in the lyrics until the fourth verse (by Excell's version, the fourth verse begins "When we've been there ten thousand years"), and that the song represents the ability of humanity to transform itself instead of a transformation taking place at the hands of God. "Grace", however, to John Newton had a clearer meaning, as he used the word to represent God or the power of God.[95]

The transformative power of the song was investigated by journalist Bill Moyers in a documentary released in 1990. Moyers was inspired to focus on the song's power after watching a performance at Lincoln Center, where the audience consisted of Christians and non-Christians, and he noticed that it had an equal impact on everybody in attendance, unifying them.[22] James Basker also acknowledged this force when he explained why he chose "Amazing Grace" to represent a collection of anti-slavery poetry: "there is a transformative power that is applicable ... : the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature."[96]

Moyers interviewed Collins, Cash, opera singer Jessye Norman, Appalachian folk musician Jean Ritchie and her family, white Sacred Harp singers in Georgia, black Sacred Harp singers in Alabama, and a prison choir at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Collins, Cash, and Norman were unable to discern if the power of the song came from the music or the lyrics. Norman, who once notably sang it at the end of a large outdoor rock concert for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday, stated, "I don't know whether it's the text – I don't know whether we're talking about the lyrics when we say that it touches so many people – or whether it's that tune that everybody knows." A prisoner interviewed by Moyers explained his literal interpretation of the second verse: "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved" by saying that the fear became immediately real to him when he realized he may never get his life in order, compounded by the loneliness and restriction in prison. Gospel singer Marion Williams summed up its effect: "That's a song that gets to everybody".[3]

The Dictionary of American Hymnology claims it is included in more than a thousand published hymnals, and recommends its use for "occasions of worship when we need to confess with joy that we are saved by God's grace alone; as a hymn of response to forgiveness of sin or as an assurance of pardon; as a confession of faith or after the sermon."[4]

With the advent of recorded music and radio, "Amazing Grace" began to cross over from primarily a gospel standard to secular audiences. The ability to record combined with the marketing of records to specific audiences allowed "Amazing Grace" to take on thousands of different forms in the 20th century. Where Edwin Othello Excell sought to make the singing of "Amazing Grace" uniform throughout thousands of churches, records allowed artists to improvise with the words and music specific to each audience. AllMusic lists more than 7,000 recordings – including re-releases and compilations – as of September 2011.[62] Its first recording is an a cappella version from 1922 by the Sacred Harp Choir. It was included from 1926 to 1930 in Okeh Records' catalogue, which typically concentrated strongly on blues and jazz. Demand was high for black gospel recordings of the song by H. R. Tomlin and J. M. Gates. A poignant sense of nostalgia accompanied the recordings of several gospel and blues singers in the 1940s and 1950s who used the song to remember their grandparents, traditions, and family roots.[63] It was recorded with musical accompaniment for the first time in 1930 by Fiddlin' John Carson, although to another folk hymn named "At the Cross", not to "New Britain".[64] "Amazing Grace" is emblematic of several kinds of folk music styles, often used as the standard example to illustrate such musical techniques as lining out and call and response, that have been practiced in both black and white folk music.[65]

Those songs come out of conviction and suffering. The worst voices can get through singing them 'cause they're telling their experiences.
Mahalia Jackson[66]

Mahalia Jackson's 1947 version received significant radio airplay, and as her popularity grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she often sang it at public events such as concerts at Carnegie Hall.[67] Author James Basker states that the song has been employed by African Americans as the "paradigmatic Negro spiritual" because it expresses the joy felt at being delivered from slavery and worldly miseries.[31] Anthony Heilbut, author of The Gospel Sound, states that the "dangers, toils, and snares" of Newton's words are a "universal testimony" of the African American experience.[68] In the 1960s with the African American Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, the song took on a political tone. Mahalia Jackson employed "Amazing Grace" for Civil Rights marchers, writing that she used it "to give magical protection – a charm to ward off danger, an incantation to the angels of heaven to descend ... I was not sure the magic worked outside the church walls ... in the open air of Mississippi. But I wasn't taking any chances."[69] Folk singer Judy Collins, who knew the song before she could remember learning it, witnessed Fannie Lou Hamer leading marchers in Mississippi in 1964, singing "Amazing Grace". Collins also considered it a talisman of sorts, and saw its equal emotional impact on the marchers, witnesses, and law enforcement who opposed the civil rights demonstrators.[3] According to fellow folk singer Joan Baez, it was one of the most requested songs from her audiences, but she never realized its origin as a hymn; by the time she was singing it in the 1960s she said it had "developed a life of its own".[70] It even made an appearance at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 during Arlo Guthrie's performance.[71]

Sample of Judy Collins' version of "Amazing Grace"
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Collins transitions from her solo voice to the chorus backing her up
Sample of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards' version of "Amazing Grace"
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A lone bagpipe transitions to a chorus of pipes and drums, similar to Collins' version
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Collins decided to record it in the late 1960s amid an atmosphere of counterculture introspection; she was part of an encounter group that ended a contentious meeting by singing "Amazing Grace" as it was the only song to which all the members knew the words. Her producer was present and suggested she include a version of it on her 1970 album Whales & Nightingales. Collins, who had a history of alcohol abuse, claimed that the song was able to "pull her through" to recovery.[3] It was recorded in St. Paul's, the chapel at Columbia University, chosen for the acoustics. She chose an a cappella arrangement that was close to Edwin Othello Excell's, accompanied by a chorus of amateur singers who were friends of hers. Collins connected it to the Vietnam War, to which she objected: "I didn't know what else to do about the war in Vietnam. I had marched, I had voted, I had gone to jail on political actions and worked for the candidates I believed in. The war was still raging. There was nothing left to do, I thought ... but sing 'Amazing Grace'."[72] Gradually and unexpectedly, the song began to be played on the radio, and then be requested. It rose to number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining on the charts for 15 weeks,[73] as if, she wrote, her fans had been "waiting to embrace it".[74] In the UK, it charted 8 times between 1970 and 1972, peaking at number 5 and spending a total of 75 weeks on popular music charts.[75]

Although Collins used it as a catharsis for her opposition to the Vietnam War, two years after her rendition, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, senior Scottish regiment of the British Army, recorded an instrumental version featuring a bagpipe soloist accompanied by a pipe and drum band. The tempo of their arrangement was slowed to allow for the bagpipes, but it was based on Collins': it began with a bagpipe solo introduction similar to her lone voice, then it was accompanied by the band of bagpipes and horns, whereas in her version she is backed up by a chorus. It hit number 1 in the UK singles chart in April 1972, spending 24 weeks total on the charts, topped the RPM national singles chart in Canada for three weeks,[76] and rose as high as number 11 in the U.S.[77][78] It is also a controversial instrumental, as it combined pipes with a military band. The Pipe Major of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards was summoned to Edinburgh Castle and chastised for demeaning the bagpipes.[79] Funeral processions for killed police, fire, and military personnel have often played a bagpipes version ever since.

Aretha Franklin and Rod Stewart also recorded "Amazing Grace" around the same time, and both of their renditions were popular.[i] All four versions were marketed to distinct types of audiences thereby assuring its place as a pop song.[80] Johnny Cash recorded it on his 1975 album Sings Precious Memories, dedicating it to his older brother Jack, who had been killed in a mill accident when they were boys in Dyess, Arkansas. Cash and his family sang it to themselves while they worked in the cotton fields following Jack's death. Cash often included the song when he toured prisons, saying "For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person."[3]

The U.S. Library of Congress has a collection of 3,000 versions of and songs inspired by "Amazing Grace", some of which were first-time recordings by folklorists Alan and John Lomax, a father and son team who in 1932 traveled thousands of miles across the South to capture the different regional styles of the song. More contemporary renditions include samples from such popular artists as Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers (1963), The Byrds (1970), Elvis Presley (1971), Skeeter Davis (1972), Mighty Clouds of Joy (1972), Andy Williams (1972), Amazing Rhythm Aces (1975), Willie Nelson (1976), The Lemonheads (1992) and Dropkick Murphys (1999).[64]

Critical analysis

The general impact of Olney Hymns was immediate and it became a widely popular tool for evangelicals in B...