'Amazing Grace' still a beloved hymn after two centuries
Oft-recorded hymn remains source of strength and comfort around the world
Jason Olson, Deseret News
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It has endured for more than two centuries, offering hope to those grieving or searching for meaning to life. With its simple melody and message of salvation, "Amazing Grace" is a global music sensation.
As music lingo would describe it, the song is No. 1 with a bullet. Will Elvis' "Hound Dog" last 200 years? Michael Jackson's "Beat It"? Lady Gaga's "Poker Face"? "Amazing Grace" already has and keeps on going.
Says Cliff Barrows, who led choirs all over the world for decades at Billy Graham crusades: "We will sing this song until Jesus comes and it may be one of our theme songs in heaven around the throne."
According to www.allmusic.com, "Amazing Grace" has been recorded more than 6,600 times.
"It may be the most recorded song on the planet," said Jerry Bailey, executive at Broadcast Music, Inc., of Nashville.
The song was written in 1779 (or a few years earlier) by John Newton, an English poet and clergyman who died in 1807. Newton, as a young man, deserted the English Navy, was recaptured and punished and became involved in slave trading. He later had a religious awakening during a storm at sea before becoming a prolific hymn composer.
More than two centuries later, it's a fixture across spiritual and secular culture. It's been played at some of the country's most somber gatherings: Memorial services following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing and the attack that killed 32 students at Virginia Tech.
It crosses denominational doctrine, with no references to Jesus Christ, just God and Lord. It's unfailingly positive with no mention of hell or the devil. The word "grace" is mentioned three times in the second verse alone.
The lyrics are mostly one syllable and, with few high notes and just one octave, are easy to sing. It's no challenge like "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"It's a perfect marriage of text and tune," says Mack Wilberg, music director of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir. "It just resonates in a way that few other hymns do."
The familiar, inspirational first verse:
"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."
Subsequent verses offer reassurance, protection and fulfillment.
Its broad appeal is reflected in the wide-ranging albums where it found a home, from collections of reggae love songs to bagpipe anthems and mandolin pickers.
Although Judy Collins probably recorded the best known commercial version, Joan Baez became linked to the song by singing it in the 1960s during Vietnam War demonstrations. Still, "Amazing Grace" does not mention social issues and is not considered a "protest" hymn.
It's been played in movies including "Alice's Restaurant" and "Coal Miner's Daughter."
A 2006 movie, "Amazing Grace" starring Ioan Gruffudd, was about the life of 18th Century anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce. Albert Finney played Newton, a friend of Wilberforce.
The song also was the subject of at least one book, "The Story of America's Most Beloved Song, Amazing Grace," written by Steve Turner and published in 2002 by Harper Collins.
The song has had international use, too. It was performed in English and Chinese by a children's chorus at a worship service in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics with President George Bush attending.
"It has universal appeal," Wilberg said.
A few alternate versions have come into use, including one verse apparently taken from the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
More than a century after that book, the song was a standard during civil rights demonstrations.
In music industry circles, "Amazing Grace" is public domain. This means no one gets royalties for the song except those who have written alternate versions of it.
Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," a rival to "Amazing Grace" as a spiritual favorite, has been recorded about 500 times, far fewer than "Amazing Grace."
And "How Great Thou Art" didn't get popularized in the U.S. for 170 years after "Amazing Grace" was written.
Barrows says "Amazing Grace" will be around "as long as there is sin in the world and need for forgiveness and the need for the daily presence of a living, loving, giving savior to be our guide and strength each day."
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