Amazing Grace

January 17, 2008 at 1:37 am Leave a comment

John NewtonAmazing Grace, a landmark 2003 production with Bill Moyers, presents a series of adaptations of this well-loved hymn from, amongst others, the Boy’s choir of Harlem, dramatic soprano Jessye Norman, the country / rock and roll singer Johnny Cash (who would die later that same year), standards singer Judy Collins and American folk singer Jean Ritchie. The words to Amazing Grace come from the pen and mind of John Newton, sea captain and slave-trader who, on a homeward voyage from Sierre Leone, experienced a storm event that marked his conversion to Christianity.So momentous was his experience, that he marked the day as a memorial – May 10th 1748 – the “hour of his great deliverance.” He did not immediately distance himself from the slave trade, however. Some ten or twenty years later he penned the words to a hymn that would come to be known for its opening line “Amazing Grace (how sweet the sound).” His original hymn, first published in 1779, consisted of six verses:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

The origin of the original melody is unknown. Most hymnals today using the popular tune associated with Amazing Grace reference an American folk tradition probably tied to “Singing Billy” William Walker, an evangelist that popularized the hymn in 1855 in his shape-note songbook Southern Harmony. Bill Moyers speculates that it may have originated as the tune of a slave song. This is probably unlikely.

Amazing Grace saw a resurgence in popularity when it became a standard for the Folk Revival movement of the 1950’s, and in the subsequent “Roots Revival” of the 1960’s where younger performers rediscovered and reworked the traditional folk tunes. Arlo Guthrie’s release of “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1969 further popularized Amazing Grace, and Judy Collins’ popular recording in 1971 went on to become a surprise hit in England and in America. The haunting melody of Amazing Grace has been used to dramatic effect in motion pictures, most notably the 1983 screenplay Silkwood where Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep) is forced off the road to her death. Amazing Grace has found its way into our popular culture, and is at home in a seven-single juke box as it is in many hymnals.

Amazing Grace, as Episcopalians know it today in 671 of their 1982 Hymnal, carries a final verse which first appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, borrowed from Jerusalem My Happy Home:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

This hymn, then, has come to mean far more in collective consciousness than John Newton could have imagined when he wrote his original lyrics in preparation for a sermon on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. Bill Moyer’s was able to devote an entire hour to the exploration of the popularity and interest in this hymn. Convicts, alcoholics and Sunday school teachers have all found a power and solace in the words and the music of the phenomenon known for its opening line, Amazing Grace. The hymn has become so well known that most would have little difficulty singing the hymn a cappella – or in remembering several verses from memory. Alice Parker expands this understanding in When We Sing: Conversations with Alice Parker and Friends.

In this 1994 video production, well known authors and composers of Church music gather to discuss the phenomenon of singing in Church, and explore what we expect of a text and a tune when we sing. Alice Parker, composer, arranger and conductor, brings together a remarkable group of hymnodists with backgrounds in composition of music and lyrics, arrangement, translation, adaptation and harmonization. Participants include Carl Daw, Episcopal Priest and Executive Director of The Hymn Society in the United Sates and Canada. Daw, whose translations (Hymn 62), adaptations (Hymn 266) and paraphrases (Hymn 679) compliment the Hymnal 1982, makes a strong argument for the inclusion of more difficult hymns in worship. The people, he argues, are to be trusted as fully capable of singing more complex words and settings. Daw calls for leading congregations out of the security of “commercial language” to a place where liturgical poetry can “sacramentalize the common experience.” Specific words, Daw suggests, can achieve a transcendent state when they are “marinated in scripture.”

Anne Lecroy’s translations from Romance dialects bring to the liturgy a metaphoric poetry which invites worshipers to dwell inside the meaning of these ancient texts. The 10th century Mozarabic words to Hymn 35, for example, set to the tune Mighty Savior by David Hurd, renew ancient sentiments:

Though bodies slumber,
Hearts shall keep their vigil,
For ever resting in the peace of Jesus,
In light or darkness
Worshiping our Savior now and forever.

Brian Wren believes that when people sing together, whatever their style, their singing becomes a vehicle for their “encounter with the divine.” It shouldn’t matter, he argues, whether their voices are trained or untrained. Even the off-key voices, he suggests, are lending a legitimate form of worship as they come together and sing. Wren’s words, as they appear in the Hymnal 1982, offer simplistic texts that speak to the immediacy of contemporary issues. Take, for example, Hymn 603:

Where generation, class or race
Divide us to our shame,
He sees not labels but a face,
A person and a name.

There is a social and theological value, Wren observes, in common song that speaks to larger social issues and inform us of our Christian responsibility.

Modern adaptations of poetry find their way into our hymnals, too. Take for example W. H. Auden’s last lines from the chorus of his Christmas oratorio For the Time Being set to David Hurd’s Hall in Hymn 463:

He is the Way. Follow him through the land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety:
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh:
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

These “new songs for new times” are indicative of the need for and interest in expanding the canon of liturgical music to “. . . reflect the nature of today’s Church by including the works of contemporary artists and works representing many cultures.” The move to expand any hymn book is not without its difficulties. Time-honored traditions and sensitivities can pose a significant hurdle for hymn writers and composers interested in bringing new work to light. “A lot of people ” argues David Hurd “even some church musicians, think that church music is frozen in the past. That’s really not true.”
On a recent trip to Africa our train was held up at a railway station as the tracks had been washed out a few miles ahead. When it became obvious that the tracks could not be repaired in time for us to complete our journey, the railway company hired buses to transport us the last 300 kilometres of our journey. We had been travelling in the opulence of first class on a train that offered four classes of travel. As we spilled out onto the platform, any notion of class disappeared as we hauled our luggage across the rail yard to the waiting buses. We piled onto the bus, cheek to jowl with our happenstance travelling companions, and began the long night haul to our destination. And then someone began to sing. From the back of the bus this solitary voice sang the opening line of a traditional Zulu hymn. As if we had rehearsed, the entire bus joined in a rousing song on cue. Here we were, an unlikely cross section of society jostled from the safety of our compartments on the train, and our instinct was to draw on our collective memories and to come together in song. It was, as Alice Parker suggests, a seductive moment for us as we became magnetized through our common song. Here we found our commonality; our lives intersected in this singing.

This is the power of hymn singing. Corporate singing touches us and moves us at times we least expect. It is this common language, our shared dialect, that comes to us at moments of great celebration and great difficulty “Many people” writes Wren “hunger for some sense of personal contact with the divine, a contact that involves the heart as well as the head.” It is in our hymns and in hymn singing that this is achieved.


Entry filed under: Anglican, ECUSA, Music, The Episcopal Church.

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