Abused Essay, Research Paper

Amazing Grace: The Journey of an Unforgettable Hymn?

Henry Braithwaite

Music 205


How does a hymn become so universal? Where does it gain its ability to be transformed into almost every style of music known to man? The hymn ?Amazing Grace? is such a hymn. Its existence has been marked by evolutions upon evolution in its use, but has always remained the same in its meaning and effect. To trace the path of this hymn?s existence, one must begin in England. From there it has blossomed and spread out from the English way of life and grew up in the United States. From early American times to the present the hymn has become something extraordinary. What it has become is one of the most universal traditions that may be sung among men and women everywhere in a vast array of styles.

John Newton was the creator of this hymn. Its creation is a story all in itself. John Newton began in the navy but he soon left the navy and began worn on another ship, most likely a slave ship. From there he gained his own slave-trading ship and he began his life as a slave-trader. Thanks to John Newton, historians know much about the being a slave-trader through the extensive journals and letters that all survived from his work on slave ships. What started this amazing hymn came as the ?wretch? of a slave trader and sea captain was on his ship during an incredible storm. In the midst of the storm, John Newton was said to have exclaimed ?God have mercy on me (Moyer).? That night he contemplated what he had yelled and had come to the realization that he did believe in God and this was a sign to him (Moyer). John Newton had been living his life as a slave trader, a position he himself thought was immoral and wretched (Moyer). It was that night that the feelings for the hymn began to manifest themselves inside the mind of John Newton.

Finally convinced that his current way of life was improper, John Newton decided to take a more religious way of living to help himself and others. The hymn was finally produced for one of his weekly prayer meetings around 1780. He had set up these weekly prayer meetings at The Parish of Olney in England where he worked and produced many other hymns as well. That one single prayer meeting marks the starting point of a time-line filled with additions and alterations for the hymn ?Amazing Grace.?

So why has this hymn been taken into so many forms of music? In the 1960?s the song had really started to break out of its common form found in most churches. Now instead of a simple arrangement of notes, the song began to take on more moving notes (Moyer). In the 1970?s disc jockeys were requested to play the song, its popularity was growing all over. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. One such reason lies in human beings and our attachment to fond memories. For some inexplicable reason this hymn is known to most everyone in North America. When hearing the hymn, people seem to feel like a very fond and warm memory is refreshed and this soothes the mind and soul, creating this universal closeness to the hymn (Moyer). The effect of the hymn is like ?roots reaching so far down (Moyer).? There is a feeling that we all can share. Jean Ritchie says, ?It heals? when asked about the common feeling this hymn provokes. Dewie Williams, says, ?It just do something for me? when he either listens to or sings the hymn.

The source of the melody for this song is the only unknown fact. Some believe that is was an early American folk tune. Someone just came across the hymn one day and started singing ?Amazing Grace? and noticed how nice it fit. Another idea to the origin of the melody may be from a ballad (Moyer). Another interesting idea as to the origin of the hymn may be directly or closely related to the hymn?s author. It is possible to believe that the hymn received its melody from a slave song, which John Newton may have heard. One of these melodies might have stuck in his mind since he was a slave-trader and may be the melody of the song we still use today. It would be ironic if this were the case: an ex-slave trader turned to a good life writing a hymn about how he was saved from such a horrible way of living. Today, ?Amazing Grace? can be found in the following styles of music: African-American, Gospel, Native American, Pop Rock, Alternative rock, Blues, country, and folk.

The hymn can easily be found in African-American and Gospel styles of singing. One lady was quoted saying this hymn was always sung by black people, it is like a ?theme song (Moyer).? Usually when singing this song, the style of music is Black American. Often congregations will use a style of call and response when singing the hymn. One main singer will begin a verse and a large group of other singers will either come in with the next verse or sometimes repeat the verse he said. This is also one of the reasons why the hymn is considered to be ?raised.? In this style, the deacon or head singer will get up just as if he was in an African tribe and say he wants to sing a certain song in a certain meter. He begins and it is expected that the other people around join in at the appropriate times. This is very characteristic of Black-American singing, showing the influence that Africa has had on their singing and how this characteristc has managed to stay around until present day. Why the wide spread use of this hymn in African-American singing? Possibly the answer lies in the ability of black churches to turn the song into a type of song called a ?spiritual.? This style of music is very moving and it ?activates the Holy Spirit (153 Titon).? During such songs people often fall into a trance, or begin to convulse and act as if their body has been taken over by something or someone else. Another use of ?Amazing Grace? has been its role as a work song. A work song is a song sung by a group of people doing a common task to help make the work and time pass by quicker. ?Amazing Grace? sometimes is used in this style of singing. In the PBS special, Bill Moyer visits an African-American home and finds them all preparing a large meal outdoors, where there were about 6 people working on preparing the meat. What he found was a ?work song? when they al began to sing ?Amazing Grace? as they chopped up the meat in a rhythmic fashion, which was aided by the singing of the hymn.

Its entrance into the world of Pop Rock, Alternative Rock, and Blues marks the continued evolution of the ?Amazing Grace?. In the rock version (Selection 1 on the CD) we hear the use of the guitar to play the notes as a vocalist singing the famous lyrics. The song in this style of singing continues and another guitar comes forth playing in a higher octave the notes that correspond to each word of the song. ?Amazing Grace? in this style of music signifies the modern spirit that has accepted such an age-old piece. The pop version of this song (Selection 12) shows the use of a different melody. Its sounds like they are using the melody to the song ?House of the Rising Son,? but with the lyrics of ?Amazing Grace.? This helps to show how transferable this song is and its freedom. The hymn even appears in the realm of alternative rock (Selection 2), a style that is one of the most popular amongst the current generations. In this style, guitars mark the song again, but there is not the strict rock style. They are very free and upbeat with the rhythm. Also in the alternative style are drums, vocals and synthsizers. The vocals sing the lyrics with some of their own additions that make it not so antiquated and more of the modern style. ?Amazing Grace? has also hit the world of Blues Music. When first listening to a version of ?Amazing Grace? in this style, it took a while to realize the song was this famous hymn. The recorded version (Selection 3) starts out with drums and a electric guitar in a free flowing solo, this continues for a minute or so until the vocalist begins singing the familiar lyrics. The guitar and drums maintain a pattern as the singer sings. He stops for a moment in between verses and a saxophone comes in with its own solo, a characteristic of jazz and blues. What happens when a hymn is used in these styles of music? Does the meaning become more or less meaningful? The answer to this lies in the listener. For some the hymn in these styles of music may not have such a holy affect on them, it may now be more of a joyful listening experience that wouldn?t evoke as much emotion as it would in a religious rendition. So in effect the spirituality goes down in some circumstances, most likely in the blues and pop realm, but the spirituality maybe be about the same when it is in the Alternative Rock style because there is a type of music referred to as ?Christian? where presently is geared more towards the younger generations where the alternative style of rock is more popular.

Folk (Selection 6) and Country (Selection 11) are two other styles of music where ?Amazing Grace? has shown itself. In country music, the hymn doesn?t seem to have changed much. The style is country due its waltz type 3 beat with a strong beat on the on and off beats. ?Amazing Grace? in this style helps to show how it can easily be adapted to fit any situation whatsoever. The hymn in a folk song also shows how it can be adapted. The folk version lacks instruments when the lyrics are being sung and the singers seem to be in a free feeling harmony. There are parts in the recorded folk version with a guitar during non-singing parts as well as bagpipes. The spirituality in these styles seems to be diminished a bit. The songs style of music is too strong to be influenced by the religiousness of the original work. With the country and folk versions the song tends to take on a more solemn feel to it.

Other styles of the hymn ?Amazing Grace? include: Boss Nova (Selection 4), Gospel (Selection 7), a marching band version, (Selection 8), reggae (Selection 10), and a strange inventive song with no nameable style (Selection 13). What does this mean when the hymn crosses over into so many different styles of music? Universal is its main characteristic. People hear it, they like it, and some times they like it so much they adapt it to many styles of their liking. There may not be another song that has been incorporated into so many styles of music.

The styles of ?Amazing Grace? do not have a set number. There are versions of the song found even in Native American and other foreign languages. The following is the hymn in its original form and a more modern form, as well as the song in other languages.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, hut now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed!

Through 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 promised 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 called me here below,

Will be for ever mine.


Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved 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 relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come;

‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,

His Word my hope secures;

He will my shield and portion be,

As long as life endures.

Yea, 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 world shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun refuse to shine;

But God, who called me here below,

Shall be forever mine.

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.


Genade onbeskryflik groot het

U aan my bewys:

verlore seun ?n wegloopkind

weer in die vaderhuis !

Ek is die naam van kind nie werd

wou self my sake re&emull.

My lewe, kanse, tyd en geld

is nutteloos verspeel.

Maar U sien ver, oneindig ver.

U sien my honger, dors.

Want toe ek kom, my skuld bely,

druk U my aan die bors.

Genade onbeskryflik groot:

daar?s fees, ek is weer tuis!

U Seun bring my?verlore mens

weer na die vaderhuis.

En jy, ou maat, daar eenkant weg?

Lyk of jy honger ly.

Kom na die Vader; kom maak reg.

Genade maak weer vry.


























Research was not the only factor that contributed to the common feelings that people perceive when hearing or singing this song. Two field interviews also resulted with people feeling an inexplicable closeness with the hymn. Mark Haith, from Virginia Beach?s First Baptist Church, said the hymn was one of his favorites, due to its simplicity and its beauty. He really enjoys its simplicity, and the idea that he could have written something like it. Also, for him, the hymn has a meaning that is truly understandable for everyone. When he found about the true meaning of the hymn and its connection to John Newton?s life as a slave ship captain turned religious man, Mr. Haith was highly amazed, but now he really understood the meaning of the hymn. Also he added that maybe the whole idea of someone being saved is another reason why he might enjoy the hymn so much. The idea of someone in need of being saved is very relevant in today?s society and that may be a connection some make to it.

The second field interview was from the First Moravian Church of Atlanta. The church choir did not play the hymn, but their hymnbook contained 3 different versions of the hymn. In questioning one of the singers, Clara Cabiness, as to if she feels any connection to the hymn ?Amazing Grace? she said that there was no strong connection to it, but she did feel it was the hymn that she knew best, and she didn?t really know why. This answer goes back to the mysterious feeling that many share when hearing the hymn ?Amazing Grace.? For many unknown reasons, people do not know why the hymn feels so normal or close to them, but it simply just does.

?Amazing Grace? has been with many for a long time and it will probably remain that way. The evolution of such a famous hymn will never cease; the words will always hold a story from one generation to the next. The universal use of this hymn is clearly evident and marks how the world can share a song or emotion. This hymn in its many forms marks a great step, especially in ethnomusicology because it offers much for the ethnomusicologist.

Appendix of recorded versions of ?Amazing Grace?

1-Rock by Pee Siblinz

2-Alternative by Matt McCormack

3-Blues by Jerome L Gaw

4-Boss Nova by Deborah Wyndham

5-Contemporary by the Good Folk

6-Folk by Glencoe

7-Gospel sung by Tonya Rae

8-Marching by YSU Marching Pride Band

9-Normal by Beverly Conrad

10-Reggae by MK7

11-Country by CJ Niehoff

12-Pop by ?The Original Joyful Noise? vocals by Shirley Pieste

13-Weird by Funky Putz


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