A look at the history of this powerful song and some of the bluesier arrangements. “That’s a song that gets to everybody” – Marion Williams.
I stumbled upon an album the other day that brought a smile to my face as I listened. Its title is Amazing Grace and it was released in 2020 by those great folks at the Music Maker Foundation. As I listened, I realized that Amazing Grace is not just the title of the album, but that every song is a version done by a variety of roots musicians, including Guitar Gabriel, Guitar Slim and Cora Fluker. It’s raw, it’s honest and it serves to show the power of this old hymn to connect over 200 years since John Newton penned the lyrics.
Piedmont bluesman Guitar Gabriel, who contributes a couple of versions to the album, was once arrested for stealing a package of bologna and a bottle of wine from a supermarket. When he appeared in court Judge Freeman asked him if he did it. Gabriel replied “Yes sir, I did, and I am ashamed.” Noticing that Gabe had brought his guitar into the courtroom, the judge asked if he could play Amazing Grace. “Yes, sir,” Gabe answered as he picked up his instrument and began to sing. As the last notes of the song resonated, the judge pronounced Gabe “Not Guilty” and he was carried out onto the streets by a cheering crowd. Amazing grace indeed!
There are a lot of great, bluesy versions of the song. Here are two of my favourites: the first by ace Austrian slide guitar Gottfried David Gfrerer on his resonator; the second, Brooks Williams, who hails from Statesboro, Georgia, now resident in England, with another stunning slide guitar version.
Gottfried David Gfrerer
John Newton was a notorious slave trader in the eighteenth century, who mocked Christian faith, and whose foul language made even his fellow seamen blush. In 1748, however, his ship was caught in a violent storm off the coast of Ireland, which was so severe that Newton cried out to God for mercy. After leaving the slave trade and his seafaring life, Newton studied theology and became a Christian minister and an ardent abolitionist, working closely with William Wilberforce, a British MP, to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, which was achieved in 1807.
The song clearly references the struggles of Newton’s own life and the remarkable change that had taken place in him.
The tune we know now for the song was composed by American William Walker in 1835 and became popular in a religious movement called the Second Great Awakening which swept the US in the 19th century. In huge gatherings of people in camp meetings across the US, fiery preaching and catchy tunes urged the thousands who came to repent and believe. Amazing Grace punctuated many a sermon.
Walker’s tune and Newton’s words, says author Steve Turner, were a “marriage made in heaven … The music behind ‘amazing’ had a sense of awe to it. The music behind ‘grace’ sounded graceful.” Walker’s collection of published songs, including Amazing Grace was enormously popular, selling about 600,000 copies all over the US when the total population was just over 20 million.
Here are the Holmes Brothers with a passionate and soulful version
Anthony Heilbut, writer and record producer of black gospel music has noted the connections of the song with the slave trade, saying that the “dangers, toils, and snares” in Newton’s words are a “universal testimony” of the African American experience. Historian and writer, James Basker, chose Amazing Grace to represent a collection of anti-slavery poetry, saying “there is a transformative power…the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature.”
Here’s the Blind Boys of Alabama’s version, this time to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.
The song was popularized by Mahalia Jackson, who recorded it in 1947 and sang it frequently. It became an important anthem during the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
The song has been recorded by a great many artists over the years, those with faith and those without, such is the power of the song. These include Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, and of course, Judy Collins, whose 1970 recording, which I remember well, was a huge hit in both the US and the UK. Collins, who had a history of alcohol abuse, claimed that the song was able to “pull her through” to recovery.
The song’s long history and its evident power to touch everybody, whether with Christian faith or not, is evident, summed up by gospel singer Marion Williams: “That’s a song that gets to everybody.”
Two final versions: the first in the hands of acoustic guitar maestro, Tommy Emmanuel, here accompanied to excellent effect on harmonica by Pat Bergeson; the second a short moving version on harmonica at the site of Rev. Martin Luther King’s grave in Atlanta, by Fabrizio Poggi.