Wednesday, February 28, 1979

This Month in Music (1779): “Amazing Grace” published

Amazing Grace

John Newton (words)

Writer(s): John Newton (words), traditional (music) (see lyrics here)

First published: February 1779

Released: --

First Charted: December 5, 1970 (Judy Collins)

Peak: 15 US, 13 CB, 8 GR, 12 HR, 5 AC (Collins), 15 UK, 13 CN, 15 AU (Royal Scots Dragoon Guards) (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): -- US, 0.96 UK, 7.0 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 413.30 video, -- streaming

Awards (Newton):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Dixie Hummingbirds):

Awards (Mahalia Jackson):

Awards (Collins):

Awards (Royal Scots):

About the Song:

“Amazing Grace” is “arguably the best-known Christian hymn;” LC music historian Steve Sullivan called it “the best-loved religious hymn of all time.” SS “If America had a national folk hymn, this would probably be it.” HY It has been published in nearly 1400 hymnals, HY appeared on more than 11,000 albums, and been performed an estimated ten million times. CC

The 1946 a cappella version by the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The 1970 version by Judy Collins is the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. In 1972, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards took their bagpipe-driven rendition to #1 in Australia, Canada, and the UK. The song gave the Guards the distinction of being the oldest established act to ever hit the charts as they had formed 294 years earlier in 1678 TB – a century before “Amazing Grace” was written.

The first known recording was by the Original Scared Harp Choir in August 1922. It has since been recorded or performed by multiple artists including Alabama, Tori Amos, Joan Baez, Andrea Bocelli, the Byrds, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Destiny’s Child, Neil Diamond, Fats Domino, Bryan Ferry, Aretha Franklin, Crystal Gayle, Al Green, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, George Jones, Leadbelly, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, Sarah McLachlan, Blind Willie McTell, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, Patti Page, Phish, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, LeAnn Rimes, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Sufjan Stevens, Rod Stewart, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Randy Travis, Ike & Tina Turner, Carrie Underwood, and the Weavers. SH

The words are from a poem John Newton wrote describe “the joy and peace of a soul uplifted from despair to salvation through the gift of grace.” LC In 1835, a singing instructor named William Walker set Newton’s words to “New Britain,” SS a folk melody believed to be of Scottish or Irish origin. WK It was published that September in the book Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. SS

Although he didn’t write the poem until 1772, Newton was inspired by events as far back as 1748. While travelling from Africa to Liverpool, he was caught up in a ferocious storm at sea. Although an atheist at the time, he called out to God for mercy and when the ship finally landed safely in Donegal, Ireland, it was the beginning of his spiritual conversion. CC

John was inspired by his own triumphs to “escape danger, disease, abuse, and death.” LC He was born in Wapping, England in 1725. His father, a merchant sea captain, was often gone for two to three years at a time on sea voyages. Newton’s mother died of tuberculosis when John was seven and he was temporarily in the care of friends of hers before his father returned, remarried, and put John in boarding school. By the age of 11, he went to work at sea alongside his father.

John was “raised far afield of the prevailing Anglican traditions” LC and didn’t live a life of faith. In 1743, he was forced into the British Navy where he was flogged and relieved of his post after a failed escape attempt. He went on to captain a slave ship. Still, he was repeatedly faced with the idea that he had been miraculously spared. Once he was thrown from a horse and barely missed being impaled by a row of stakes. Another time, he arrived late for a tour of a warship, only to see it overturn and drown everyone on board. LC

As he wrote in his famous hymn, however, “the hour I first believed” came in the form of a violent storm at sea in which he was saved yet again when his replacement on deck was thrown overboard. By 1750, he had married and was a changed man. He became an abolitionist and returned to the sea but now led sailors in prayer whereas he previously would have taunted them for their beliefs. After suffering a stroke, he gave up his life at sea in 1854 and took a job in the Customs Office at Liverpool.

Newton was ordained in the ministry in June 1764 LC and, through a collaboration with William Cowper, wrote more than 280 hymns. HY “Amazing Grace” first appeared in February 1779 as Hymn 41 in Book I of a collection called The Olney Hymns. WK It was originally called “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” WK Newton died in 1807 at 82 years old.


First posted 9/1/2023.

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