While "Amazing Grace" is among America's most well-known and oft-recorded pieces of music, the song's history is as remarkable as its popularity. Steve Turner's book Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song tells the story of composer John Newton's conversion from slave trader to abolitionist, and traces the evolution of the song from its composition in 1772 as a hymn with no set tune to the version familiar today.
"Amazing Grace" was first heard on New Year's Day in 1773. Turner tells NPR's Liane Hansen it was written without "ceremony" in an attic room where Newton wrote weekly hymns to amplify the message of his sermons. When Newton put the internal rhyme "amazing grace" together, it wasn't purely for poetic reasons. He understood grace to mean God's unmerited favor to lost souls. Turner says it was a meaning Newton — with his sordid history and personal tale of redemption — could take to heart.
Newton supplied the lyrics, but the tune sung today arrived much later. Turner says that in Newton's day, the song would have been sung "to another song that fit its meter" — if it were sung at all. And "Amazing Grace" continued to be associated with a number of different tunes throughout much of the 19th century. In 1835, "...the tune that we now sing... was married to the words of John Newton," Turner says. That same year a South Carolina singing instructor named William Walker published a widely popular hymn book combining the now-familiar tune with Newton's words.
Turner attributes the early popularity of "Amazing Grace" in America to the religious revivalism of that period and to the power of the first verse.] In America, Newton says, "the conversion experience is more prominent and more important, and this is the absolute perfect song to accompany a conversion of that sort... 'I once was lost but now I'm found. I was blind but now I see...' It seems to be the definitive song of the personal conversion experience."
Turner also notes that the song makes an appearance in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which came to be embraced by abolitionist forces as an indictment of plantation life and slavery. The collective trauma of the Civil War helped to solidify the song's popularity.
"Amazing Grace" has been featured on more than 1,100 albums. The song reached the pop charts in the United Kingdom and the United States when Judy Collins released her version in 1971. It was another time of turbulence as U.S. military forces were mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam. In her forward to Turner's book, Judy Collins says the song has the "power to transform" and to heal.
Many of the musicians Turner has talked to offer similar testimony to the sweet sound of a hymn that has become an heirloom.
"Something magical happens when they sing it," Turner says.
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