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Learn About the Story Behind the Song, "Amazing Grace"

"Amazing Grace": The Overview

Amazing Grace is a world-famous Christian hymn, written by the English poet and clergyman John Newton. The lyrics were written in 1772, to be performed at a sermon for the New Year’s celebrations of 1773. The print debut happened in 1779, and even with its origins in England, it has become an iconic American song. Newton’s creation has achieved and held the position of one of the most cherished hymns of the last 200 years. It is popularly accepted as John Newton’s autobiography in the form of prose.

Woman praying looking up to the sky

Dive deeper into "Amazing Grace": The Song of the Ages

The presence of the unwavering religious connotations in Amazing Grace has elevated it to a legendary status in the United States, and there are about 10 million performances held every year. For example, in the early 1970s, singer Judy Collins’ rendition of Newton’s work sat among the best for 15 weeks on the US and UK pop charts. Additionally, singers such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley were among the many artists to record the song. There has also been a literary reference to the hymn in the 19th century Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which deals with slavery issues prevalent at that time. Amazing Grace also gained further recognition during the American Civil War and the much later Vietnam War. 

This thought-provoking piece, with strong references to African Americans, was written by John Newton, who himself was a slave trader. Newton wrote Amazing Grace as a sort of autobiography, maintaining a beautiful amalgamation of realism and fiction. Born in 1725 to a father who was a captain of a ship, the future composer and Anglican clergyman joined the slave ship, Pegasus. Due to behavioral issues and indiscipline, he was deserted in West Africa by the ship’s crew. There, an African princess, Peye, took him in as a slave and treated him no better than the others under her authority. The theatrical version follows this up with a rescue attempt by Newton’s father, which results in his grievous injuries and the death. The journey back home saw the ship caught in a tempest, almost capsizing the vessel. As Newton prayed to the Almighty, he witnessed the ship’s miraculous survival, which safely reached its destination. This brought about a change in him and he decided to depart from slaving. This realization served toward his spiritual growth as well as his evident disapproval of slavery. 

Post-1764, when he became a priest, he wrote 280 Christian hymns, which include Amazing Grace, his life story in a hymn. A study of the song reveals that it follows the major key, and the associated “New Britain” melody is generally of I, IV and V chords. This is marked as a progression which is typical of Western music. We can also grasp that there are certain deliberate re-conceptualizations, that are employed in performances to match the mood of the artist. The melody has, over time, undergone rewrites, changing the chordal tone of the hymn. The focus of the melody reflects a concentration on the major triad, alongside the 2nd and the 6th step degree notes serving as adjacent notes. 

Amazing Grace accommodates intervals that are less than a perfect 4th in size. This makes it quite adequate for the human vocal capacity. The minor thirds are replicated at the apex of the melodic tone, and these go well with the lyrics of the hymn. The rather simple rhythm is based upon crotchets, minims, and quavers, with the ¾ time quite common at the time of the song’s inception. According to American journalist Steve Turner, Amazing Grace’s initial popularity was reminiscent of the religious renaissance of the times. 

The skyrocketing popularity of Amazing Grace in the 20th century has been marveled by enthusiasts and historians alike. The year 1922, saw the Capella version produced by the Sacred Harp Choir, and between 1926-30, the Okeh Records’ catalog was inclusive of it. Subsequently, H.R. Tomlin and J.M. Gates brought about a popular black gospel rendition of it. Following these, singer Mahalia Jackson further amplified the composition’s significance by recording it in 1947. This version attained great fame in the 1950s, and into the 1960s when Jackson sang it at public events, such as in Carnegie Hall. 

In the latter part of the 1960s, Judy Collins did her own recording of it, keeping in close perspective with Edwin Excell’s Cappella arrangement and a chorus behind her. When she dedicated it to the Vietnam War, which she protested against, the song shot up on the charts. A couple of years later, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a revered regiment in the British army, produced a version, which was instrumental, featuring bagpipe and drums. During this period, Rod Stewart along with Aretha Franklin, also created their own rendition of Amazing Grace, which became very popular as well. In 1975, Johnny Cash further brought the song into the limelight by adding it to his album, Sings Precious Memories. 

Over the decades, Amazing Grace has earned a huge fan following among traditionalists and progressives alike. The stirring tone, amazing recreations and the association with popular artists have taken this song to the forefront of global fame. Additionally, the United States Library of Congress has, in its possession, 3,000 different versions of Amazing Grace, some of which were first-time recordings. This emphasizes the influence of the song on modern culture, which bears centuries-old cultural impact to it. 


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