Casting Out Devils

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The Amazing Journey of Amazing Grace

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John Newton

John Newton

A Story of Grace and Thanksgiving

This is the true story of what many regard as the greatest Christian hymn ever written.  It also amounts to being a review and recommendation of the recent book, Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song, by Steve Turner (HarperCollins, 2002).  In spite of a forward by Sixties icon Judy Collins, Turner’s book conveys a decidedly Christian message.

It occurred to me that traditionalists might object to my jazz version of “Amazing Grace” on my recent CD.  However, the legitimacy of this expressive medium for the hymn has since become clearer to me, as I shall endeavor to describe.

Many of the details of the life of John Newton (the original author, 1725-1807), circulated by word of mouth, prove to be inaccurate.  Newton did go to sea at the age of 17.  He rebelled against his Christian upbringing, becoming in his mind the most profane and blasphemous of men and a corrupter of others.

It is not true, however, that Newton found a scrap of a Bible page in the hold of a slave ship during a storm, and was immediately converted.  Newton’s conversion was a process that began with his degradation to a state lower than a slave, and was built upon by a terrible storm at sea, among other circumstances, over a period of years.  He continued in the slave trade for some time thereafter, rising to the rank of captain, although resolved to treat the slaves in the most humane manner possible.  It would remain a still longer process by which he became a preacher, songwriter, pastor and, late in life, a reformer.

Newton wrote only the words, or most of them, but not the music.  He and other evangelical songwriters sought to replace the staid church hymns of the day with heartfelt expressions in the vernacular, while still avoiding triteness.  Hymnals typically contained words only, and singers would apply a popular tune suggested by the printed text.  As “Amazing Grace” was reprinted in new songbooks over the decades, various tunes were applied.

“Amazing Grace” was never very popular in England, but was widely used in America during the Second Great Awakening, for which new, expressive songs were sought out.  The real breakthrough came with the application of a tune called “New Britain,” of unknown origin, in an early “shaped note” hymnal.  Later, its form was standardized with four-part harmony by singer and publisher Edwin Othello Excell.  By that time, however, three of Newton’s original stanzas had been dropped, and a new one inserted.

The new stanza was the one that begins, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” not written by Newton.  These lines originated in a hymn entitled, “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” published in 1790 in Virginia, but believed to be two centuries older.  The new stanza appeared in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, along with versions of two of the stanzas dropped by Excell, demonstrating the existence of other oral traditions for Newton’s song.

The song became a favorite of black congregations, its words often being preached and sung simultaneously.  Singers would expand upon it, attempting not only to draw out its full meaning, but adding to it what they thought about its words, and the feelings those words induced.  Singers also hummed or “moaned out” the melody, or derivations thereof; which, according to Turner, later inspired the saxophone lines of jazz, and the guitar of blues.

Thus gospel songs, especially “Amazing Grace,” served as the incubator for the vibrant revolution in music that captivated the United States and much of the world in the Twentieth Century.  To cast its strains in the medium of jazz, which I did instinctively, is in my opinion not only acceptable but best addresses its author’s purpose; for how could one without emotion recount, “Once I was blind, but now I see”?

© 2003 Paul A. Hughes


Written by biblequestion

November 24, 2010 at 5:13 AM

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