Amazing Grace: The Story Of America’s Most Beloved Song
Many contemporary songs have a shelf life that can be measured in weeks or months, but “Amazing Grace” has demonstrated a staying power that can be measured in centuries, offering reassurance and solace to listeners. It has transcended musical genres, with recordings by hundreds of artists, ranging from Mahalia Jackson to Willie Nelson to Destiny’s Child. It was performed at the funerals of Bill Monroe, Albert King and Richard Nixon.
Steve Turner explores the musical and social history of this gospel standard in rich detail. It’s an extensively researched work, part biography, part detective story.
The first half of the book recounts the life of “Amazing Grace” lyricist John Newton; the second half explores the dissemination of the song after Newton’s death in 1807. Newton was a British sailor and slave trader turned Church of England priest. He wrote the six-verse hymn in 1772 as an affirmation of his belief in God. Newton became an opponent of slavery, which was banned in Great Britain shortly before his death.
Turner notes that “Amazing Grace” took root and grew in America in the 19th century, becoming popular among slaves who were unaware of Newton’s past. Its colloquial, straightforward language — the first verse has only one word with more than one syllable — spoke directly to believers. “People want to sing, not what they think, but what they feel,” one writer at the time observed.
“Amazing Grace” was written without music, as Newton was not a musician. It evolved slowly into its current form as hymnbook compilers set the song to more than twenty tunes in the 1800s. It was not until “Amazing Grace” was matched to a melody called “New Britain” and published in The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion in the mid-1800s that a standarized version began to emerge. The last three verses of Newton’s original were dropped and replaced with a verse from “Jerusalem, My Happy Home”.
Recordings in the 20th century helped move “Amazing Grace” beyond the church, Turner observes. An instrumental version in 1952 by organist Maceo Woods popularized the song at funerals. Turner credits a version by Judy Collins, a Top 20 hit in 1971, with stimulating new interest in the song.
Emmylou Harris once suggested that songs need new voices to sing them in places they’ve never been sung before in order to stay alive. It’s clear that “Amazing Grace” won’t be on life support any time soon.