Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Amazing Grace – my grandaughter and most popular folk hymn.

Posted in Amazing Grace most popular folk hymn by sheelanagigcomedienne on December 27, 2012

It is inevitable that I tend to say/sing Amazing Grace when talking to my grandaughter. I beleive it called an EARWORM in modern jargon.

“AMAZING GRACE” was sung yet again at a recent funeral simply because it is an easy, familiar tune.  Despite me pointing out that IT is religious folk want it. Sometimes I can dissuade them, especially if there are going to be very few mourners or they realise that they are just following a typical CofE funeral service! But, of course, colleagues and I have to go along with people’s wishes if they are really set on it.

I was intrigued to find out that it was written by a former slave trader. “Amazing Grace” is a  hymn with words by  John Newton (1725- 1807).John Newton_Amazing Grace John Newton Book cover

He had been pressed into the Royal Navy and after leaving the service became involved in the Atlantic slave trade.  In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel so severely that he called out to God for mercy. This was supposed to mark his spiritual conversion but he continued his slave trading career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying  theology. However the song was penned 31 years after he was caught in that storm so it isn’t really true that it was a repentance about slavery that inspired it.

In 1847 the composer William Walker set it to his music New Britain.William Walker Amazing Grace tune

It is not at all surprising that myths have grown around this song and its origins.

The song which was published in 1779 contains a message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through  amazing grace which is supposed to be mercy from god but I believe it is our human conscience. I reckon most references to God can be substituted by the personification Mother Nature.

Wikipedia claims that “Amazing Grace “ is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world and that it was appropriated as secular music and ‘became such an icon in American culture that it has been used for a variety of secular purposes and marketing campaigns, placing it in danger of becoming a cliché.’ It  adds:  It has been mass produced on souvenirs, lent its name to a Superman villain, appeared on The Simpsons to demonstrate the redemption of a murderous character named Sideshow Bob, incorporated into Hare Krishna chants and adapted for Wicca ceremonies.[81] The hymn has been employed in several films, including Alice’s Restaurant, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Silkwood. It is referenced in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which highlights Newton’s influence on the leading British abolitionist William Wilberforce . The 1982 science fiction film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan used “Amazing Grace” amid a context of Christian symbolism, to memorialize the death of Mr Spock but more practically, because the song has become “instantly recognizable to many in the audience as music that sounds appropriate for a funeral. Since 1954 when an organ instrumental of “New Britain” became a bestseller, “Amazing Grace” has been associated with funerals and memorial services. It has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy, becoming a sort of “spiritual national anthem”.

The World’s Greatest Singers Have Performed Amazing Grace

The list of well-known singers who have performed Amazing Grace is almost endless. Here are some of the most famous ones.

  • Clint Black
  • Leanne Rimes
  • Whitney Houston
  • Elvis Presley
  • Pavarotti
  • The Three Tenors – Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti
  • Any Grant
  • Celine Dion
  • Josh Groban
  • Suzan Boyle

Interesting Facts About Amazing Grace

  • Although “Amazing Grace” was recorded by the Byrds in June 1970, the track remained unreleased for thirty years.
  • Joan Baez opened the US Live Aid concert (1985) with a performance of “Amazing Grace” – Around the world Live Aid concerts raised millions for African famine relief.
  • Amazing Grace is the most covered song in history with over 3200 recordings.
  • It is considered the anthem of the Cherokee nation because it was sung on the Trail of Tears during 1838-39.
  • William Walker added the current melody to the lyrics in his 1835 hymnal.
  • There are 972 known musical arrangements of the hymn.
  • The first gospel recording was made in 1926 by Reverend H.R. Romlin.
  • Arlo Guthrie performed Amazing Grace at Woodstock.
  • Between 1970 and 1972 a version of “Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins spent 67 weeks in the singles charts (the record for a female artist) and peaked at number 5.
  • The final stanza ” When we’ve been there 10,000 yrs “, was added by Edwin Othello Excell in 1909 and was taken from another hymn.
  • —————————————————

Nevertheless, and despite the story behind it,  I do wish that folk who choose to have a Humanist funeral wouldn’t try to shoehorn in the three hymns they think aren’t really hymns – Amazing Grace, All things bright and beautiful and Jerusalem. Religion does CONFUSE  people!


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