The Evolution of America’s Most Popular Hymn

by M-Gillies

Mamie Smith and her album "Crazy Blues" was the first blues recording. The record became a huge success in 1920, selling over a million copies in less than a year.

Amazing Grace didn’t become an overnight success to become the most recognizable hymn in the world. In fact, the transition from its early beginnings as a hymn written for a little parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire to its many melody renditions is one that has a lengthy history. For roughly over three centuries, Amazing Grace has long been used in various church denominations as one of the most popular hymns.

Below is a timeline of the history of Amazing Grace and its evolution into the hymn it is today.

Olney Hymns in Three Books (1779)

With a fevered condemnation of slave-trading, former slave-trader John Newton found his spiritual awakening while homeward bound on a slave-trading ship. It was during a vicious storm which threatened to capsize the boat that he began his spiritual conversion to God. However, it was only after taking a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire that Newton began composing hymns for his congregation.

In 1779, through a collaboration with the poet William Cowper, the first printing of Amazing Grace appeared in “Olney Hymns in Three Books” with profits from the hymnal benefitting the poor of Olney.

The Virginia Harmony (1831)

Compiled by Methodist lay preacher James P. Carrell and Presbyterian elder David L. Clayton, the Virginia Harmony was the second shape-note tune-book to feature Amazing Grace. It was in this book that Amazing Grace was first set with the anonymous folk tune Harmony Grove.

The Southern Harmony (1835)

First published in 1835 and compiled by William Walker, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion became the earliest pairing of the words for Amazing Grace with what would become the melody known as New Britain – the melody which has been long associated with the hymn.

By taking the Harmony Grove tune, Walker made minor alterations, changing arrangements, and further amalgamating two melodies Gallaher and St. Mary, and renaming it New Britain, leading to The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion to become enormously successfully for singing schools, further popularizing Amazing Grace in America.

Sacred Songs & Solos (1877)

The classic book containing an enormous collection of 888 hymns and solos was compiled by Ira D. Sankey, an Episcopalian Methodist from Pennsylvania and musical assistant to evangelist Dwight L. Moody, in the late nineteenth century as a resource for his concerts and revival meetings. With a wide range of themes containing both hymns and choruses Sacred Songs & Solos became the defining hymn collection of the late-nineteenth century evangelicalism and included the hymn Amazing Grace set to the tune Claremont.

Baptist Chorals (1888)

The Baptist Chorals: A Hymn and Tune Book for Use in the Churches, was the first time that Amazing Grace was set to the tune of New Britain in a hymnal. While the song and tune were often seen combined in shape-note tune-books, Amazing Grace would often be associated with more than twenty different tunes. What this book had done was mark the first time that Amazing Grace and New Britain were the only arrangements found in the book.

Make His Praise Glorious (1900)

It was in 1900 when Edwin Othello Excell began tweaking the tune of Amazing Grace, adding harmonies and ironing out awkward transitions from the William Walker’s version. Using the standard European harmony used by contemporary choirs, Excell further included the use of soprano in the melody, and continued to make changes to the song until 1909 until it became the sound we all know of today.

The Original Sacred Harp Choir (1922)

In 1922, Brunswick Records released the first recording of Amazing Grace in a small series of recordings. For this series, Brunswick created a special label that incorporated shape-note notations in its design.

OkeH Race Records (1920-1930)

As recording companies began to grow, they developed terms for their catalogs, which were known as “race” catalogs, or their “hillbilly/old-time” catalogs. This allowed companies to provide a clearer idea of the audience they were marketing to during a period of racial segregation.

However, with the success of Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues (reputed first blues recording) which had been aimed specifically toward the African-American market, OkeH Records owner Otto K. E. Heinemann began producing lines of recordings of music neglected by larger record companies for audiences to hear.

This in turn opened the lesser-tapped market for blues and jazz by African American artists, and further pioneered the practice of “location recording” in 1922. Through OkeH’s success with blues recordings, the company expanded its efforts to include recordings of white, southern vernacular music, and soon sought after popular local musician Fiddlin’ John Carson.

It was during one of his recordings in 1930, that Carson had been singing At the Cross but continued singing the same tune to the lyrics of Amazing Grace. It would be Carson’s version that would be known as the first recording of Amazing Grace with musical backing.

However, it was Reverend J.M. Gates whose early recording of Amazing Grace featuring African-American “singing preachers” became the most popular. With his version earning Columbia records 3,400 advanced copies and requests ordered by dealers and more than ten times that number for the second release, Gates’ recordings became highly popular among dozens of African-American preachers, who also went on to make their own recordings of religious songs and sermons.

Herbert Halpert and The Folk Arts Committee (1939)

As Amazing Grace was growing into a commercial success within recording companies, folklorists began documenting the song for scholarly purposes. Commissioned by the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk-Song, individuals were sent out into the field with first wax cylinder recorders, then instantaneous disc recorders to capture both performances as well as interviews with the musicians and performers of the song Amazing Grace.

In particular, anthropologist and folklorist, Herbert Halpert recorded 419 discs of instrumentals, monologs, prayers, sermons and songs (notably Amazing Grace) throughout the South from March 15 through June 23, 1939.

Shilo Baptist Church (1941)

While enrolled in the University of Texas, folklorist, John Henry Faulk earned a degree in Folklore with his thesis “Ten Negro Sermons” in which he documented African-American religious traditions in Texas. With more than 100 recordings in churches, Faulk noted that the version of Amazing Grace used with a variant of the New Britain melody demonstrated how music was used in the context of African-American religious expression.

As was common with both African-American and Anglo-American religious traditions, the leader would read a few lines of text to the congregation, which they would then sing back. However, what Faulk recorded was layered within the song, the preacher would both sing and other times preach over the song, while the congregation’s expression ranged from words of encouragement to cries of ecstasy.

Sam Cooke and Amazing Grace (1963)

In 1963, American gospel, R&B, Soul and Pop singer, Sam Cooke took to the studios with the Soul Stirrers and instead of using the tune New Britain for his rendition of Amazing Grace, as many gospel groups had done before him, Cooke instead wrote a new arrangement for the song and altered the lyrics so that each stanza was made up of Newton’s first line repeated three times plus his fourth line.

Amazing Grace Turns Rock (1970)

For thirty years, the recording of Amazing Grace by The Byrds had remained unreleased, but in 1970, the folk rock band took to the studios to perform their rendition of the popular hymn.

Amazing Grace Reaches The Music Charts (1972)

In 1972, Elvis Presley released his third and final studio gospel album, which would earn him his second of three Grammy Awards. In the collection, his version of Amazing Grace instantly reached the music charts, topping #79, and instantly becoming a recognizable classic within his extensive catalog.

Amazing Grace Turns Country (1975-1976)

Before his death, Johnny Cash, whose music was heavily influenced by gospel music, which was also taught to him by his mother, would release roughly ten gospel albums, including a version of Amazing Grace on the 1975 album, Sings Precious Memories. Meanwhile, in 1976, country singer Willie Nelson took to performing his own rendition of Amazing Grace in his album The Sound in Your Mind.

Amazing Grace Spans Multiple Genres (1987-Current)

In 1987, American alternative rock band The Lemonheads released their original LP Hate Your Friends, which showcased their early punk roots and further included a version of Amazing Grace. The album would be later released in 1992, with the song remaining in the lineup.

As of 2012, according to allmusic.com, there are over 7,000 recordings of Amazing Grace by musicians ranging from The Startler Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Disciple to Dropkick Murphy’s, Throwing Muses, David Hasselhoff and more.

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