Amazing Grace: The Story Of America’s Most Beloved Song, by Steve Turner
There are very few songs that are worthy of a book, much less the sort of lovingly crafted and meticulously researched book that this one is, but Amazing Grace is definitely one of those songs. Indeed, perhaps the most serious negative thing that can be said about the book is that the fact that it was published almost two decades ago means that its discography of cover versions is woefully obsolete, missing some very excellent versions of the song (like Alan Jackson’s). Be that as it may, this book is one that manages to straddle the line between a detailed look at what the song means and a discussion of what the song means to audiences, many of whom do not have the sort of religious worldview that the author of Amazing Grace did. And for those of us who (like me) are fans of Newton and his songwriting, this book did a good job at putting the music industry and the way that songs are finessed and change their context once they become part of the public domain in a context that helps one to understand how and why this song became so iconic.
This particular book is about 250 pages long or so and it is divided into two parts and thirteen chapters. The book begins with a foreword by Judy Collins, as well as acknowledgements and an introduction and prologue that discuss the author’s own interest in this book and what is known about the song by other people. The first part of the book contains six chapters about the creation of the hymn (I), discussing Newton’s tumultuous life as a sailor (1), his time in captivity in Africa (2), which seared him for life, his crisis of faith in the mid-Atlantic (3), his anomalous position as a Christian slave-captain (4), his entry into the Anglican church and the writing of the Olney Hymns with Cowper (5), and his turn towards abolitionist politics (6). The second part of the book looks at the reception of the hymn (II), with chapters on the joining of the hymn to its music (7), the spread of the hymn by revival (8), the Gospel sound (9), the hymn in the folk tradition (10), the hymn’s chart reception (11), the song’s status as an icon (12), and the way that grace is understood (13), after which the book includes appendices involving lists (i), a select discography (ii), a who’s who of people talked in the book (iii), as well as a select bibliography.
Make no bones about it, Amazing Grace is an amazing song. A lot of what it is amazing about it is the way that it takes someone’s soulful reflections on their own fallen state of wretchedness and God and Jesus Christ’s incredible mercy in calling repentant sinners and frames the song in such a way that the music we sing it do matches the emotional resonance of the song. When you add to that the way in which the song speaks about the concern for freedom from death and degradation that has made the song a mainstay of revivals as well as a fruitful subject for contemporary covers, and it is little surprise that this song should be so immensely beloved by Americans, even if its context was originally related to English Protestant ways. This book does a great job at looking at the complexity of how the song that we have was cobbled together from various sources, how it reflects a great deal of America’s own issues, and how it has served as a vital emblem of black and white religion, being something rare that has crossed over a great many divides in our culture and society without anyone being able to be accused of cultural appropriation in the meantime.