Updated: Oct 27, 2022
Despite its British origin, "Amazing Grace" is a quintessentially American song and is quite likely the most-performed and -recorded song in American history. Of course, it began its existence as a hymn, but it has escaped its beginnings and is now many different things to many different people. I think it would be fair to call it a meme, not in the internet sense, but in the original sense that Richard Dawkins meant: a cultural unit analogous to a gene, which can propagate, mutate, compete for a place in consciousness, and so forth. I would add that elements of a meme can join together and split apart like parts of genes.
A well-known example of a religious meme that has escaped its origins would be Christmas. Even in the beginning the holiday was a fusion of the Christian nativity story with various winter holidays of the pagans. Over the centuries it grew and changed. St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. The holiday became a children's affair or a generalized "Benevolence Day," as I've heard it called. When I worked retail, my boss, who was Jewish, put up a Christmas tree in his home. This generic, "Season's Greetings" treatment of the holiday annoys some Christians, who put up billboards saying "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."
In this essay I am going to discuss some of the memetics of "Amazing Grace." I will discuss its origins, its structure, its variations, its repurposing. I will not be offering ten different versions of the same basic song. You don't need me for that. Nor will I rehash the Wikipedia article about the song. You don't need me for that either. Instead I draw on many sources and make some connections along the way, trying to guide you on a tour of the song that will be curated, informative, hopefully aesthetically pleasing, and maybe even fun. You might not want to listen to all the music linked, but I suggest that you try at least a minute or two of each example before moving on.
I am going to begin with a classic live performance by Joan Baez (1941- ). Baez is a folksinger who has worked in political causes such as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. (Here is her YouTube channel.) In this rendition she is leading a sing-along with her audience. Note that she feeds the crowd the words in case they don't know them, a practice called "hymn-lining."
“I never thought of it as a Christian song,” says Baez, speaking of "Amazing Grace," which she helped popularize in her concerts during the 1960s. “It was a song that was associated with civil rights and with the Movement. I don’t think that anyone at the time thought of it as a religious song. Like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ it had developed a life of its own.”
A cultural artifact that "develops a life of its own" is precisely what a meme is.
Our next sample is clearly Christian. Its singer, Wintley Phipps (1955- ), is a Seventh-Day Adventist minister. In this clip he tells a story about the song before delivering a magnificent performance at the end.
This is a beautiful narrative, but unfortunately much of it is untrue. It is true that an English slave-ship captain named John Newton (1725-1807) wrote the text to the song. And it's true that the song is written in a pentatonic scale. But Newton didn't write the words while he captained a ship. His religious conversion did occur while he was a slaver, but not because he was one, since he kept on in that "trade" for years afterward. Only years after he left slaving and became an Anglican curate did he write the words to "Amazing Grace"—without a tune, because that's how most hymns were written in those days. And he didn't become an abolitionist for some time after that.
Phipps is clearly engaging in is mythmaking. He is repurposing "Amazing Grace" to promote racial reconciliation. It is brilliant and moving, especially when he simulates the moaning of the slaves during the Middle Passage, but he is "appropriating" the song, to his cause. Yes, it became a Negro spiritual, but it started out about as white as it could be. (And in case it's not obvious, I don't believe that "cultural appropriation" is generally a sin. It is a form of natural, mimetic cross-pollination. But one really ought not invent facts in the process.) Here is a link to Rev. Phipps's channel.
Phipps claims that the five-note pentatonic scale was pre-eminently West African. Actually, the pentatonic scale is used all over the world, including in English and Scottish folk music. You could say that it is the universal basic scale. Watch this charming clip by Bobby McFerrin for a demonstration:
John Newton wrote the words in 1772, and it is tempting to believe that he was referring to himself as a wretch for having helped enslave other human beings, but that's probably not the case. In traditional Christian theology we are all wretches without God's gratuitous benevolence, which we do not deserve but which God bestows upon us because He loves us. Without grace we are lost and blind in this world and damned in the next.
Newton's text was far more loved in the United States than in its native Britain. But it took over 60 years—until 1835—for "Amazing Grace" to be matched with the tune we all know. In the meantime there were at least 20 attempts at finding a pairing. This seems noteworthy as far as memetics goes: fertilizations that miscarried.
There was a hurdle to performing the song in any form, however: America at that time had a shortage of people who could read music. To get over this difficulty a simplified notation was developed. It was called "shape notes" because the note heads, instead of being ovals, were triangles, rectangles, etc. Congregants could, with a little training, learn to sight-read and perform three- and four-part harmonies. Although the tradition almost died out in the early part of the twentieth century, you can now find quite a few shape note "sings" under the name "Sacred Harp," with the harp in question being the human voice. Shape note hymns were meant for congregations to sing without any accompaniment beyond the occasional stomping. It was not solo music or a song for concertizing, but community church music. In today's meetings, however, religion is not discussed, and Christians, Jews, atheists, and even Buddhists join the sings for their love of the music, not so much their love of God. Once again we see a meme that has escaped its origins.
The pairing that yielded the familiar result was made by an American hymn-compiler and -composer named William Walker (1809-1875). He took a tune from an earlier American collection, renamed it "New Britain," and arranged the music for three-part mixed-voice harmony. (Nobody knows why he chose that name "New Britain." He did not have any connection that we know of to the town in Connecticut of that name.) The tune appears to be an amalgamation of two British folk tunes of unknown provenance. It is conceivable that it was of West African origin, but there's no reason to think so.
Although the pairing began as a stately hymn, it became a staple of the frenzied camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. I don't think this was Walker's intention, and I suspect that Newton, who was a believer of reason (in its place) would have been appalled. Eventually the song retreated to Appalachia.
Walker's arrangement, though recognizable, does not sound all that much like our modern song. The melody would be, to our ears, a bit rough, and the harmonization sounds positively bizarre, with the melody part being in the middle instead of on top. In this clip the choir, as is the custom, sings the fa-so-la notes before launching into the words. And it sings full out. Even if you don't like the sound, I encourage you to get through at least the first verse so you can see the memetic conception of "Amazing Grace" as we now know it.
If you find this rendition too harsh for your ears, try this sweeter version by Anonymous 4. It's not quite as "authentic" since they are an all-female group and the Sacred Harp arrangement is for mixed voices, but you can probably hear the harmonies better.
As I mentioned above, "Amazing Grace" was matched with many melodies before "New Britain." This is possible because the words and many tunes share what is called "ballad meter." This is a rhythm with syllables in an 8-6-8-6 pattern, with the two 6-lines rhyming.
Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems in ballad meter. Here's a stanza from a famous example:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
You could actually sing this to "New Britain" if you like.
One recent and powerful example of a pairing of Newton's words with a tune other than "New Britain" comes from the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama." I'll say where the tune comes from below the clip so you can have fun identifying it yourself.
The tune of course comes from "House of the Rising Sun," another song which was assembled from parts. The classic performance is by The Animals and is not to be missed if you haven't heard it. You can find the Blind Boys' YouTube channel here.
It took some time for "New Britain" to outcompete its rival tunes. Victory wasn't assured until singer and hymn-writer Edward Othello Excell (1851- 1921 ) rearranged Walker's version in 1900 and again in 1910, smoothing out some of its awkwardness and giving it more conventional harmonies. Excell's version is the one we all think of as the song. All hail the conquering meme!
But I think there's much more to say about "Amazing Grace." Not only is it interesting to see what happened after 1910, it might be worth hearing a couple of the versions that lost out to the Walker/Excell fusion.
You may have noticed that the sheet music in the shape note video I linked above was titled "New Britain." That's because hymnals typically labeled songs by their melodies rather than by their texts. In some places "Amazing Grace" is still called "New Britain."
In many hymnals the next version is called "Jewett." It was written in 1869 by R. F. M. Mann. The all-female vocal group Anonymous 4 gives a very smooth performance of it, probably smoother than you'd hear in any real sing, although I can't imagine anyone but the greatest purist objecting. Mann's arrangement subtracts many of Newton's verses (as most do) and adds a rousing refrain. Listen for the unearthly harmonies.
Again, this version is not quite "authentic" because the original was written for mixed voices. That in some innocuous sense repurposes the original hymn as a performance piece. But oh Lord, the harmonies are beautiful! Check out the group's YouTube channel here.
Another tune that lost out is called "Fiducia." It is not from Walker's collection but from other ones such as The American Vocalist. All I could find out was that it was published in 1848 by a composer named Robinson. Singer Tim Eriksen says that it was the tune "Amazing Grace" was performed to in New England. Stay tuned to the end and you'll hear a piece of startling and definitely inauthentic weirdness.
Eriksen is a complicated musician to say the least. He started out as something of a punk but ended up a specialist in American folk. He creates unusual arrangements of traditional music, using unconventional instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, and Mexican string bass where they had no traditional place in order to make the old songs fresh, vivid, and new. In this performance he takes a melody that was meant for three- or four-part vocal harmony and translates it into a solo voice accompanied by a banjo. He sounds like a hillbilly, which is not completely inappropriate, because "Amazing Grace" was largely sung by white Appalachians for several decades. He is self-consciously playing with the genre conventions and that is a large part of what makes the song a free-floating meme rather than just the hymn Newton intended. Genre-bending is the essence of post-modernism in the arts, and this kind of post-modernism takes "meme-hood" to the extreme. Check out Eriksen's YouTube channel here.
I think we can learn something here about our music versus the music of our precursors. They were not going for the same kind of silky smooth tunes that most of us moderns like, at least not in their choral church singing. They liked songs with an edge. And although they also liked complex harmonies, theirs sound almost Medieval compared to our own, and their music was for participation and worship, not something "aesthetic" you would sit quietly in your seat and listen to.
"Amazing Grace" has been a staple of African-American music for at least 170 years. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe has Tom thinking about the song in his time of pain and sorrow. Stowe includes a verse not written by Newton, a verse she may well have gotten from enslaved persons she knew. In the twentieth century "Amazing Grace" was commonly performed at black churches in a fashion designed to elicit religious passion. Here is a version by Aretha Franklin (1942-2018):
I have to say that personally this version by is not to my taste because it is so drawn-out, but I think my dislike is due to me treating the song as art rather than as religion. The people in the church with Franklin are hanging on every syllable, "witnessing" it, sucking out every drop of meaning, and using it to connect with the Holy Spirit. Even if I were a Christian, that would not be my way of worship, and my imagination is simply too limited to adopt the mind-set.
I do like some black gospel versions, however. This one by The Soul Stirrers rearranges the words and the melody. Note that the lead singer is Sam Cooke, (1931-64),famous for "You Send Me" and "Chain Gang," Cooke was regarded in his short life as The King of Soul, a neat bookend with Aretha Franklin being The Queen of Soul. These artists' crossovers from religious to secular music are a testament to the influence of black gospel music on popular music in general.
After decades of being largely a "specialty" song, "Amazing Grace" went viral (a memetic metaphor if there ever were one) as two versions by white artists that hit the Billboard Charts. One was recorded in 1970 by eclectic singer-songwriter Judy Collins (1939 - ) and the other in 1972 by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a bagpipe group. Amusingly, the bagpipe version was considered controversial at the time for mixing the pipes with a military band, which dragged down the reputation of the pipes! From that time forward the song became associated with bagpipes, as we can see from this scene in Star Trek: II The Wrath of Khan.
From this point on there was no stopping the meme. I am not even going to try to trace the later variants of the original song. Instead, I thought I would put up two versions where the meme aspect is especially acute in that they rip the famous first verse out of its context and set it to a new melody, embedded in different words. We could go so far as to say that the first verse, usually, but not necessarily set to the "New Britain" tune, is the core meme.
The first is by Hillsong Worship, an Australian contemporary Christian group that has launched several notable soloists.
I personally do not like much contemporary Christian music. It often seems like a transparent attempt to be hip and suck in to young people by employing the idioms of their music. But this song works for me. I find it peaceful yet passionate. Notice, however, that it takes Newton's first verse and transforms in into little more than a mantra. The other verses have withered and dropped off.
This kind of transformation is even more extreme when Hare Krishna singer Krishna Das (born Jeffrey Kagel, 1947) implants the verse into one of his chants. "Mountain Hare Krishna" features the singer Sting from The Police, and its repeated use of the first verse of "Amazing Grace," which occurs in the second half of the clip, is literally a mantra. I normally find trance music to be boring, but Krishna Das's voice is compelling, and if you listen closely, the piece does develop.
So what gives rise to the enduring popularity of "Amazing Grace"? In his history of the hymn, Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song, Steve Turner opines that the spiritual grace for Christians can be seen as a metaphor for the secular promise of a new and better life for followers of the American Dream. After all, as Turner points out, the inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty says "Give me... the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." America offers a kind of grace, and the song taps into that promise, hope, and gratitude, and although life in America is not without its dangers, toils, and snares, the vision of a nation based on an ideal will inspire us to carry on.
This analysis seems plausible to me, but I think I might go for a simpler explanation and say that the song elicits in us the experience of being taken care of and unconditionally loved in times of trouble. By listening to or singing the song while bracketing off its literal meaning if we wish, we can tap into a "cosmic feeling" of fulfillment without projecting a cosmic being to do the fulfilling. Here the meme is an emotional metaphor.
I suppose I couldn't end without offering one more version of "Amazing Grace" sung to "New Britain." I want to use it to illustrate how far the meme has come from its roots. Newton wrote a spare hymn to be chanted or sung to an obscure melody by a staid congregation. Elvis Presley, though his faith was probably sincere, offers us lush solo vocals backed up by a large orchestra. What he is doing may be worshipful but it is essentially a performance. Newton would no doubt have been horrified by many of Presley's songs, by The King's pelvic gyrations when he sang secular his music onstage, and by his fans' quasi-religious adoration. Memes adapt to new environments.
There is of course no way I could include even one-tenth of one percent of the recordings of this amazing song. I am sure I have omitted almost all of almost everybody's favorites, but you don't need me to reflect back at you what you already like. Why don't you leave a comment and say which version you like best? And perhaps say which version in this essay you thought was the most interesting. And be careful: don't let memes run rampant through your mind!