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The American Anthem
How Amazing Grace went from ignored in Britain to acclaimed in America
Newton's "Amazing Grace" never enthralled his country as it has ours. The British apathy is captured in John Julian's classic Dictionary of Hymnology (1892), where he says the famous hymn is "far from being a good example of Newton's work." This indifference might have been because the tune that now seems so essential to the attractiveness and memorability of "Amazing Grace" wasn't yet widely used, or because the British usually preferred a more restrained and unemotional type of religion. Whatever the reason, the words of "Amazing Grace" articulately express American Christianity's emphasis on the conversion experience and simultaneously describe America's cultural and historical journey.
Revival's "camp classics"
At the time of Newton's death, the dramatic religious revival later known as the Second Great Awakening was in progress. Initially centered on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, it was characterized by a huge emotional outpouring of dancing, wailing, jumping, laughing, and collapsing. The new style of "camp meeting" revival demanded a new style of worship. The songs had to be memorable because out in the field, in the half light, there could be no hymnals.
As this religious revolution intensified, a parallel musical revolution was under way. Ordinary working people liked to sing, yet almost none of them could read music, and most churches didn't have musical instruments. This meant that congregations were entirely dependent on song leaders to strike up tunes and carry them.
To make music more accessible, a different notation had been developed that was relatively easy to learn. This was the "shape-note system," so called because the key to recognition was the shape of the note rather than its position. Peripatetic singing instructors would visit a town for two or three weeks, setting up evening classes in available spaces. The natural outcome was a surge of interest in communal singing and then a growing body of ordinary Americans who had mastered the rudiments of music.
No, Newton didn't write the tune
Shape-note singers used tune books rather than hymnals. Hymnals were pocket-sized books with texts only. Tune books were large, oblong books with hard covers, often more than 400 pages long. They included both music and text and were introduced by an extended essay on the rudiments of music. It was in one such tune book, Columbian Harmony (1829), that "New Britain," the music we now use with "Amazing Grace," was first published.
The marriage with Newton's words took place three years later, in William Walker's celebrated tune book The Southern Harmony, an event that makes Walker second only to Newton himself in the story of "Amazing Grace." Today it is hard to hear the tune without imagining the words, and hard to read the words without hearing the tune, yet until Walker saw their compatibility both elements of the song were leading independent lives.
Until this time "Amazing Grace" had been sung to a variety of tunes. When Walker put it with "New Britain" he displayed real genius, because not only did the words fit snugly into the required musical space but the music enhanced the meaning. The music behind "amazing" had a sense of awe to it. The music behind "grace" sounded graceful. There was a rise at the point of confession, as though the author was stepping out into the open and making a bold declaration, but a corresponding fall when admitting his blindness.
The Southern Harmony proved enormously successful. It sold an estimated 600,000 copies in a country where the population in 1850 was only just more than 23 million. The book's success played a vital role in establishing "Amazing Grace" in America. The words corresponded to the American experience in a unique way, not only by delineating the archetypal evangelical conversion but by articulating the groans of a people who frequently had to struggle with poverty and sickness. No other nation was made up of so many pioneers and immediate descendants of pioneers. "Dangers, toils, and snares" had particular resonance for those who'd suffered for their adventure, as did the promise that grace would "lead me home."
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