We’re here to talk about the man who’s responsible for “Amazing Grace,” but I want to build a base first so you’ll appreciate the song better, because the song’s being attributed, I think, by people who are rewriting history, whether willfully or ignorantly (and I think it’s ignorantly, because we haven’t done our work). We need to give the story and get it out there, and I am just as much to blame as anyone for not having published this. I have given this talk at the University of Virginia, I’ve given it other places, and I’m giving it here, but it’s going to be left to the young folks – here in the Institute, perhaps – to write that biography of William Walker, to write the history of the song so that we will give the proper person proper credit. And not use the song as propaganda or a self-help song, which it has become. When you remove “God” and “the Lord” and “Christ” and “He” from the last stanza, which as been done by multiple artists, such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez (the latter of whom says she cannot believe it is a religious song), the story must be set straight.
William Walker was born in 1809, on Tiger River in the central South Carolina upcountry, about halfway between Columbia and Spartanburg. He was known by the nickname “Singing Billy” to distinguish him from two other William Walkers in his part of the world – “Hog Billy,” who raised hogs, and his son, “Pig Billy.” Singing Billy’s father was Welsh, Baptist, and emigrated directly to South Carolina from Wales. Singing Billy’s mother was Susan Jackson, whose parents were Griers and Jacksons from Ireland. The Baptist churches of William Walker’s childhood were Lower Fairforest and Padgett’s Creek. The first was established in 1762, and thus fifty years old when Walker was born. Both churches felt music important, and the church minutes frequently note attention to music and musicians. For young people who want a project in graduate school, a biography of Singing Billy Walker, the man responsible for “Amazing Grace,” has never been done, despite his being one of South Carolina’s musical heroes. The church minutes do exist, and they have not been used.
Perhaps even more influential than the church music was Singing Billy’s Irish-descended mother. From footnotes to several songs in Walker’s hymnbooks, we learn that Susan Jackson Walker taught him songs when he was a small child, and he apparently listened deep and long. For example, concerning the song “Solemn Thought,” Walker says: “This is a very dear old tune to me. I learned it from the sweet voice of my dear mother, who now sings in Heaven, when I was only three years old. It was the first tune I ever learned.” In another note, he says it was the first piece he wrote out, and that was when he was eighteen years old. A note to the hymn “That Glorious Day” reports that he wrote that he wrote that song in 1830, using “the melody as I learned it from my dear mother when I was only five years old.” Likewise, he said the air of “French Broad” (one of my favourite song tunes), first published in 1835, came at his mother’s knee when he was five years old. In another footnote on “French Broad,” he gives further information on its composition: “The words to this song were composed in the fall of the year 1831 while traveling over the mountain on French Broad River in North Carolina and Tennessee.” I don’t know where he crossed the French Broad, but someone who knows, Appalachians, should be able to find that route. I don’t think that would be impossible to do. I would like to know exactly where Walker crossed. And there aren’t that many places to cross the French Broad, because it is a rip-roaring river. It’s a canyon. Singing Billy Walker was twenty-two years old and his journey was very dangerous. He was traveling to set up shape-note fa-sol-la singing schools to bring the system of learning music to the country churches in the coves and fastnesses of the remotest mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. And remember, they didn’t have pianos or organs, so they had to rely on the voice. A testimony to the efficacy of his work is that the shape-note tradition continues in these same coves today, and I mean today, 2015. A good modern example of Walker’s legacy is the testimony of North Carolinian Doc Watson. How many of you know Doc Watson? Oh, my! Now, see, five people knew Billy Walker, but everybody raised his hand at Doc Watson. Doc Watson gave the most touching tribute to Walker. He said: “Singing Billy Walker’s music was my early formative influence, my primary influence.” So, we actually know Singing Billy Walker through Doc Watson. How many of you know “Down to the River to Pray?” If you know “Down to the River to Pray” and get the aura of that song, the feel of that song, you know what Singing Billy Walker’s songs are like. They’re very close in spirit. Vintage Walker can be happy, but it can be very melancholy, you know, it’s very serious and very melancholy at times. And (I guess because of some of my Irish background) I tend to like the melancholy songs. I don’t know why.
We can return with young Walker on his solitary travels in the fall of 1831, and imagine how “French Broad” came into being, then. I kind of put you there in the creative moment for that song. Nobody else has ever done that, because nobody’s ever taken this man properly, seriously, as a creative artist. This is a creative artist we’re talking about. John Newton wrote the words to “Amazing Grace,” but the song was written by Singing Billy Walker, along with many, many others. As a poet, a good, solid poet who yoked the words to music, Walker was extraordinary, one-of-a-kind in American creative history. So anyway, we’re going to hear it. I want to read the words to French Broad, and then Alan is going to push a button for me (because I don’t know how to do that), and we’ll hear it. But let me give you the words to the song, because sometimes with the fa-sol-la tradition, if you’re not singing it and you don’t know it, you don’t know what’s being said. Walker wrote these words as he was going over the French Broad River and looking down into a waterfall and chasm:
“High o’er the hills the mountains rise, Their summits tower toward the skies; But far above them I must dwell, Or sink beneath the flames of hell. Oh, God! forbid that I should fall And lose my everlasting all; But may I rise on wings of love, And soar to the blest world above. Although I walk the mountains high, Ere long my body low must lie, And in some lonesome place must rot, And by the living be forgot. There it must lie till that great day, When Gabriel’s awful trump shall say, Arise, the judgment day is come, When all must hear their final doom. If not prepared, then I must go Down to eternal pain and woe, With devils there I must remain, And never more return again. But if prepared, Oh, blessed thought! I’ll rise above the mountain’s top, And there remain for evermore On Canaan’s peaceful, happy shore. Oh! when I think of that blest world, Where all God’s people dwell in love, I oft times long with them to be And dwell in heaven eternally. Then will I sing God’s praises there, Who brought me through my troubles here I’ll sing, and be forever blest, Find sweet and everlasting rest.”
These are moving words, but they weren’t moving until I knew the story. I mean, they were moving enough, but now that I know the story of what happened in this man’s life and how the song got written, it moves me. Walker’s out there alone and solitary, riding through this dangerous country. This thing is real, not abstract. This thing is very concrete for him, and he was thinking of his mother, I’m sure, who had just died. You need to know that, too, so you have that little autobiographical touch. I haven’t read those lines in a while, and every time I read them, they move me. So, Mr. Alan, would you push that button for me?
“Amazing Grace” is Walker’s most famous song, but I rather prefer this one (and the more I hear it, the more I like it). Walker’s footnotes revealed the dates of other early compositions. For example, “Heavenly Armour” was written in 1828, when he was nineteen years old, and is still popular, especially in Bentonville, Kentucky at the fa-sol-la shape-note sings. You can find all these songs on your marvelous instrument (smart phone). There’s a music app where you can push the button and get the sheet music (you can also get a very bad machine version to give you the tune). The hymn “Millennium” was written in 1831, and the hymn “Jerusalem” was written in 1832. I want to read you just a few words of the verses of “Jerusalem.” It’s all about going home, being away and returning. These are very Irish and Southern themes. I’ll begin with the chorus, then read the first verse:
“I’m on my journey home, To the new Jerusalem, So fare you well, I am going home. Jesus, my all, to heaven is gone, He whom I fix my hopes upon; His track I see, and I’ll pursue The narrow way, till him I view.”
It’s a song that you’d expect Billy Walker to write, because this man was on horseback most of his young life. He was riding from Spartanburg, South Carolina, through the North Carolina mountains to East Tennessee, and further than that, setting up singing schools, one right after another. He was on horseback most of his life, and that journeying motif would be very natural for him. So many of his songs are about journeys. Of course, then, the big journey is the main journey, and home is not Spartanburg, it’s the Heavenly home. And that, we all have to keep in mind, is our real home. The South is our home. But our real home is the home he’s talking about, primarily, though he talks about both homes. These songs (I want to impress this on the young folks especially) are by a serious young man at the ripe old age of twenty-three. What have you done with your lives, folks? What had I done with my life when I was twenty-three? I was still trying to get a PhD, I expect. But at twenty-three, Singing Billy Walker was writing these. I think that’s extraordinary. Of course, you had a great many achievers in the Old South and in America, because they didn’t have to go to college. They started out and did things by the time you’ve been to your first Georgia football game, your first Gamecock baseball game. So, anyway. Travel. Homesickness. Weariness. Longing for return. Longing for a home, and not being satisfied by Spartanburg, by this world, but longing for the real home. This is especially fitting, I think, for a man who spent his years on horseback in sparsely populated country, and of his condition, he made an emblem of the longing for man’s Heavenly home in his Father’s house, where there would be peace and rest and no more trials or weariness.
Walker was the first to publish the song “The Good Physician,” of which he notes: “This tune and song was a great favorite with my mother.” His mother must have been a good singer (or at least she remembered her Irish background). It’s clear, then, that Walker transferred the Old World’s music to the new land and made something very new. Here we experience what Fugitive poet Donald Davidson called “Poetry as Tradition,” that wonderful essay that everyone should read. It’s no wonder that Davidson admired Singing Billy. Davidson admired him so much that he wrote a folk opera called “Singin’ Billy.” It was performed at Converse, at Lawford, in Nashville, and it’s never been performed again. It should be. If we want to reclaim our Southern heroes and our Southern culture, we need to perform Singin’ Billy the Opera. It wouldn’t require a whole lot of stage setting. Quilts, mainly, real quilts. You can do that. That was tradition in the South. I’m working on a writer named Adam Summer, and he said that in 1825 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Newberry County, where he was learning about nature, his schoolmaster took him on nature walks in the virgin oak forests around the school, he said. “And then we had Shakespeare plays” (this was when he was five, six, seven, eight years old), “Shakespeare plays played out on the academy porch, there at the church, with quilts borrowed from the neighborhood to change the scenes.” So, when Davidson used quilts as curtains, he really was right-on (as usual with Donald Davidson). So anyway, I’m getting off the subject, here. It’s clear, then, that Walker transferred the Old World’s music to the new land. Davidson’s opera shows that he really understood what Walker was all about and what Southern music says for us and about us. To him, music was, if not the key, certainly a key to understanding the South. John Donald Wade, who was Donald Davidson’s best friend, attended shape-note sings in rural middle Georgia in the 1940’s, and Donald Davidson often accompanied his friend, John Donald Wade, and they’d go out in the country and hear the shape-note sings that were still being done “pure,” I guess you’d say. You’ll find a description of those outings in an essay called “The Sacred Harp in the Land of Eden.”
Recent research has revealed that Walker’s Hymn, “The Lone Pilgrim,” uses the tune of a Scottish folk song entitled “The Braes Of Balquhither.” Here are a couple of lines from The Lone Pilgrim: “I came to the place where the lone pilgrim lay, And pensively stood by the tomb, When in a low whisper I heard something say, How sweetly I sleep here alone!” (This is another traveler who’s died in transit, and he’s buried in an unmarked grave, and he’s speaking from the grave):
“The tempest may howl, and the loud thunder roar, And gathering storms may arise, Yet calm is my feeling, at rest as my soul, The tears are all wiped from my eyes. The cause of my Master compell’d me from home, I bade my companions farewell; I blest my dear children, who now for me mourn – In far distant regions they dwell. I wander’d an exile and stranger from home, No kindred or relative nigh; I met the contagion and sank to the tomb, My soul flew to mansions on high.”
So, here’s another wanderer, another exile. He’s in exile, but he’s doing God’s will in his exile, and he’s hoping to get home, but something happens and he doesn’t. If you want to hear a haunting, dark song, this certainly qualifies. Doc Watson sang it. Now, the hymns “Something New,” and one of my favorites, “Thorny Desert,” are now identified as variants of Irish and Scots-Irish Reels. This has just been done. Research is finally being done a little bit around the edges, and we’re finding more and more that Singing Billy Walker’s songs have analogs in Ireland, as in Scotland and Scott in Northern Ireland. We don’t have time for “Thorny Desert,” but I want to read you just a few lines:
“Dark and thorny is the desert, Through which pilgrims make their way; But beyond this vale of sorrows Lie the fields of endless day. Fiends, loud howling through the desert, Make them tremble as they go; And the fiery darts of Satan Often bring their courage low. O, young soldiers, are you weary Of the troubles of the way? Does your strength begin to fail you, And your vigor to decay? Jesus, Jesus, will go with you, He will lead you to his throne; He who dyed his garments for you, And the wine press trod alone.”
The wine press image, I think, comes from Revelation, or maybe Isaiah? The image of the wine press comes from both. I’ll quit here, but if you want to look at a poem that really shows how Billy Walker uses imagery and symbolism, “Thorny Desert” is a good one. Musicologist Dr. George Pullen Jackson pointed out that the tune of Walker’s “Faithful Soldier” is from Ireland. Dr. Jackson listed two variants of it in George Petrie’s Music of Ireland. Walker was the first in the United States to write down this tune in 1835. Well, as far as we know; he’s the first known person to have written it down. No doubt it was another melody learned from his mama, as so many of the others were, or from somebody at his church. The tune of Walker’s song, entitled “Bruce’s Address Spiritualized,” is the well-known traditional “Scots Whae Hae” with new verses. The first verse of the hymn goes this way: “Soldiers of the cross, arise, Lo, your Captain from the skies, Holding forth the glittering prize, Calls to victory. Fear not, though the battle lower, Firmly stand the trying hour, Stand the tempter’s utmost power, Spurn his slavery.” Walker himself wrote both the tunes and words to many songs, but they all have the feel of the traditional songs, ballads, reels, and hymns of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. These provide yet another illustration of the Celtic underpinnings of the culture of the upland South. It’s not insignificant that the shape-note hymn book, The Sacred Harp would use the emblem of Ireland in its title.
Walker, in establishing hundreds of singing schools, particularly in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and East Tennessee, made it possible for this music to travel westward. It was said that in the country homes throughout the Deep South and the Old Southwest, Walker’s music books were second in number only to the Bible. Walker published his own book, Southern Harmony, in 1835, when he was twenty-six years old. It has an imprint of Spartanburg, South Carolina. A first edition is one of the rarest and most valuable books you can find in Southern literature. It sold more than 800,000 copies at a time when the population of the United States was less than 23 million. This book was turned out and turned out and turned out until the type fell apart and had to be reset. But when you think of 800,000 copies sold at a time when the population of the United States was less than 23 million, that’s amazing. There were various editions then from 1835 to 1854. The book was so popular that general stores and trading posts had it. It contained 209 hymns, with twenty-five listing Walker as composer. Though he probably did more than that, he just took credit for twenty-five, including “Amazing Grace.” Walker married in 1833 at the age of twenty-four, and that’s when he left Union County, South Carolina for the last time and settled in Spartanburg, where he raised ten children to maturity. He operated a bookstore in Spartanburg. He also helped found and support Wofford College. He was known in Spartanburg for the excellence of his large private library and his knowledge of literature. If you wanted a quote or wanted to know something about literature, you’d go over to Singing Billy’s and he’d tell you. He was very well versed in poetry. Walker always signed his name, “William Walker, A.S.H.,” which meant “Author of Southern Harmony.” In fact, he told his friends that he would rather have “A.S.H.” after his name, than “Pres.” before it, and when you go to his grave in Magnolia Cemetery in Spartanburg, his name is written that way on his tombstone.
Walker strove hard to teach singers and singing masters to refine their tone of voice, “so as to make it soft, smooth, and round.” If you read the preface to Southern Harmony, he tells you how to sing. He also tells you how to behave, insisting that there should be no talking while people are singing – that’s just bad manners. He also talks about the quality of the voices he deals with: “Yet how hard it is to make some believe soft singing is the most melodious singing, when at the same time, loud singing is more like the hootings of the midnight bird.” He also wrote of the proper courtesy, as I said, that “noise while singing is disrespectful both to the singers and to the author of our existence, God Himself.” During the War, Billy Walker helped nurse the Confederate wounded. He went to Richmond in June of 1862 for that purpose and became friends with Stonewall Jackson, from whom he learned of his mother, Susan Jackson Walker’s blood kinship to “Stonewall.” Now, you know how much Jackson loved music. Jackson’s favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” appeared in Southern Harmony. It’s called “Sincerity” in Southern Harmony. Walker’s version has seven verses and appears with a note stating that he wrote the treble in this expanded arrangement. Walker thus published the hymn in the way we know it today, and General Jackson, who loved hymns, especially that one, had more in common with Walker than blood kinship. So, they were related, and they knew it, and they had long talks and sang together. Didn’t know that, huh? Well, we’ll talk more about William Walker’s Confederate experience, because that is so important now in our politicized time, when “Amazing Grace” is being appropriated by people.
Walker survived the War. In 1866, he published his second hymn book, The Christian Harmony. 1866 was a hard time to be publishing hymn books. He wrote and arranged new songs for it, as he said, “fresh from my pen.” There are fifty-two pieces by Walker, by name, up from twenty-five in Southern Harmony. In other words, we’ve doubled our number of William Walker attributable hymns. That’s a sizable number of hymns. That’s not easy. Not even Gaither has done that. Walker died in Spartanburg in 1875 at the age of 66. He’s buried at Magnolia Cemetery. The obituary in the local paper got it right. It declared: “He was no ordinary man.” I suspect even his eulogist didn’t fathom just how extraordinary he was. Most people never do, not the great geniuses. Wofford College hosts a Southern Harmony sing each year, and the event ends with one of Walker’s songs sung at his grave. Today, hymnals of many denominations use Walker’s settings and at last credit his name as composer or arranger. This was not always the case several decades ago. In fact, to be specific, it was only after 1991 that “Amazing Grace” would finally bear his name in the Lutheran Church Hymnal and in other denominational hymnals. That was just twenty-five years ago! So, my friend Brent Holcomb, who is a musician and a Faulkner scholar, writes: “In the modern hymnals, the true flavour and vitality of Walker’s music is all but destroyed.” It’s true they’re still there, but Holcomb regrets that “the haunting original beauty of the melodies is sadly diminished,” and recommends returning to The Southern Harmony’s settings.
Now, I think we need to hear my second favorite song, and that’s “Sweet Prospect.” In modern arrangements, this song is usually called “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” Do you know that one? It goes: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, And cast a wishful eye, To Canaan’s fair and happy land, Where my possessions lie. O, the transporting, rapturous scene that rises to my sight, Sweet fields array’d in living green, And rivers of delight.” Those are two of my most favourite lines in poetry, and particularly so for me, because he’s describing the river that runs by my house, the Tiger River, and the Tiger Valley. I look out across at Singing Billy’s fields when I look out my upstairs windows. So, his vision of Heaven is very similar to this hill country that he knows in the South, the land of his birthplace and childhood. Once again, it’s the imagery of coming home so important to the Southern psyche. The recording you’re going to hear is from a first-rate singing group called Anonymous Four, and you will find a lot of Singing Billy’s songs in their album, American Angels.
Now, the next song is “Wondrous Love,” and you’ve all heard “Wondrous Love,” surely.
Now, I don’t know if you could make out the words, but the last verse goes: “And when from death we’re free, we’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity we’ll sing on, we’ll sing on.” Well, I think Heaven, for Walker, was singing on eternally, as well it should be for him. That would have been appropriate for a singing schoolmaster who loved what he was doing and was good at it. Now, this business of singing on, “we’ll sing on, we’ll sing on.” I want to contrast this with “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. I want to take a little time with it because I think we can look at the cultural divide with this poem. “We’ll sing on” in praise of God vs. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume.” Well, there’s a big difference there. That’s pre-modern on one hand and modern on the other. Everybody knows Walt Whitman, the establishment’s darling. His “Leaves of Grass” is a celebration of the egocentric and even the narcissistic. The poem’s speaker says he will assume the role of the new Christ or the new Adam in the new land. His poem is the man-centered, secular poem of the time. Interestingly, Whitman was also a wound-dresser. He also was a nurse. For a Southerner, the view of the afterlife as singing on into eternity is not a bad vision, because he can usually halfway carry a tune or at least keep time by patting his feet. All of us are able to do that. Walker was one of the chief primary cultural influences on the South. That’s clear. I mean, Southern Harmony sold 800,000 copies. Let me put it this way. The Lutheran churches of my part of the world, not infected by Illinois and Michigan’s failed socialist revolutionaries, were very conservative, Southern congregations, and they used Singing Billy Walker’s hymns. They may have had a piano. They may even have a more sophisticated German music. You know, that’s a big deal, all the great German Lutheran composers. Well, Walker’s Southern Harmony was used in my church and all the churches in my area in the 1800’s, so it wasn’t just a Baptist thing or a Welsh Baptist thing. Lutherans used it, too. So, I think Walker was one of the chief primary cultural influences on the South and a major gauge and register of that culture, just as New Yorker Walt Whitman is a register for the increasingly man-centered, “I-centered,” materialism of his evolving culture. Southern identity, like that of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, is bound to music, music deeply rooted. There’s no better indication of the soul of Southern music than the wound-dressing Singing Billy. As Walt Whitman, “The Solitary Singer,” sang in praise of himself, William Walker was setting up congregational sings in order to sing communally the praises of his Creator. With Walker, there’s no confusion of who is the Creator and who is the created, and there’s no clearer indication of the differences between the two peoples they represent. This is borne out in other ways by the story of “Amazing Grace,” which I now will unfold.
During his lifetime, Walker was best known for his Southern Harmony songbook, first published in 1835, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The words and tune of “Amazing Grace” were first married and published in that book. The words were not written by William Walker. The tune, called “New Britain,” was not written by William Walker. Indeed, “New Britain” is the name Walker gives it in Southern Harmony. But William Walker was the first to put the words with the tune so that it’s the song we know today (more or less), and that first appeared in 1835. Also in that book, we have “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” “Rock of Ages,” “Wondrous Love,” and “I’m Bound for the Promised Land.” These are the hymns surrounding our wonderful “Amazing Grace,” and that’s just to name a few. I’m reminded of a famous writer’s prediction that one fine song will last when all the great volumes of laws and histories will be forgotten. I think this will finally be the case with Singing Billy. His “Amazing Grace” may be the single most recognizable, best-loved song worldwide today. In a sense, then, Walker is among America’s most famous creative artists, even though few would recognize his name. Mere thousands of us, and we’re Southerners. Fifty years ago, virtually none of us would, probably. So, things are changing. When Bill Moyers aired his PBS documentary on “Amazing Grace” a decade ago, there was no mention of William Walker, which figures. The documentary focused on the life of John Newton. You see, John Newton is your ultimate white-guilt-trip-man. I guess you might call him that. He was a good poet, and an interesting figure. Now, there’s a new movie being made in England about his life, a-two-and-a-half-hour spectacular. So, I was watching this documentary done by Bill Moyers, and I was waiting, you know, right to the last of the five sessions to hear another mention of William Walker. I never got it. John Newton, as we know, was an Englishman who had been the captain of a slave ship in the 1700’s. He repented his actions and became a zealous and fanatical preacher. He wrote the words that became the text of “Amazing Grace” in the year 1772, but there was no established tune. There was certainly no established tune in England. In England, the first time it was set to a melody, the tune was called “Hephzibah.” You ought to hear it. It’s really bad. In the eastern United States in the early 1800’s, there were no less than ten tunes for “Amazing Grace,” all less than memorable. Well, I shouldn’t say all. I haven’t heard all ten. But I’ve got one here, which is probably the best of the lot, and it’s “Amazing Grace” before Singing Billy. This is the best of the versions I’ve heard, and the tune is called “Jewett.” (Which is a fine, old, New England name, Jewett).
Did you like that “shout, shout for glory” addition at the end? It’s all right. I mean, I’m not saying bad things about anybody, but this isn’t “Amazing Grace.” And this was the best of the versions before Singing Billy Walker changed the tune. He knew that song in that version, and he didn’t particularly like it. So, he left out the “shout, shout” stuff and gave it a new tune. John Newton never heard the familiar “Amazing Grace” as we know it today. He never heard it. He died before William Walker was able to mate the tune with the words. There were similar tunes to the present one, “New Britain,” in Virginia, most specifically in Virginia, and one is called “Harmony Grove.” It was published in a book called Virginia Harmony, but with the words, “There is a land of pure delight…” In other words, it was a similar tune to “New Britain,” but not exactly, and with totally different words written by Isaac Watts. Then enters Walker, no later than 1834. At the age of twenty-five, he polished up and altered “Harmony Grove” to fit, and set Newton’s words to that tune for the first time, the first publication of “Amazing Grace,” then, complete with its new tune. Walker probably named the tune “New Britain” as some sort of reference to Scotland’s history, specifically the attempt to label Scotland as “North Britain” following the Act of Union. English musicologist Steve Turner says it sounds Scottish, because it uses the pentatonic scale. Ah, you agree with that pentatonic scale business.
The shape-note hymnal called The Sacred Harp picked up “Amazing Grace” with the right rendition in the next decade, and that, according to musicologists, spread the song to the North. The Sacred Harp was done by Singing Billy Walker’s brother-in-law, and they fell out. So, they split, and The Sacred Harp, then, is what is said to have been the means by which the hymn spread to the Northern States, where it became associated with the abolition movement. John Newton himself had been actively involved in the abolition of the slave trade. Then Harriet Beecher Stowe stepped on the stage and referred the song in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. She quotes the poem and adds a last stanza. That’s the “10,000 years” stanza. I can’t even remember it. I’ve tried to block it out. That’s not William Walker. That’s Harriet Beecher Stowe’s version, and that’s why it was picked up in the Northern Hymns for the Camp, The Soldier’s Hymn-Book, which was issued to Northern troops. The Walker version came to England only in the late 19th century. With the growth of the recording industry, the hymn’s popularity spread worldwide. According to S wo recordings out of hundreds may be mentioned as historically significant (and this comes from Steven Turner). The first is by Judy Collins, who made the pop charts in both the United States and Britain in 1971. This exemplified the crossover from Gospel and folk music to pop. The second was a recording by the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1972. This recording has led to too many pipe bands all over the world making the tune their own. Oh, I’m so tired of that. Every pipe band plays it. But it works! Of course they’d pick it up – it’s one of theirs!
In 2002, HarperCollins published London musicologist Steve Turner’s book, Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song. And he’s the final word on this as far as I’m concerned. He’s done his research. Turner related that some today say it’s an old Scottish tune. Turner reasons that it probably is an old Scots melody taken to the plantation South by Scots immigrants. That’s wrong, but close. They were Welsh Baptist and Irish immigrants. Turner reasoned further that the geographical area associated with the tune’s source contained a high percentage of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants. That’s also wrong. It contained Welsh Baptists and Scots and Scots-Irish. The Welsh are always left out. What’s wrong with the Welsh? Where are our Welsh historians? The Welsh are always left out of this mix, but, indeed, they’re Celtic.
We might add what Turner does not – that considering the Celtic nature of Singing Billy Walker’s Welsh, Scotch-Irish, and Irish ancestry, he would naturally be one such example of Scots-Irish influence. Turner gives credit to William Walker without saying anything about him being Welsh Baptist. He never came to my part of the world, I don’t expect. He probably never went to Lowerfair Forest Church (which I have). He probably hasn’t looked at the census records for his area in 1820, 1830, and 1840 (which I have). It is pure Celtic. Pure. I’ll go one step further than other historians have. That area is extremely Celtic. So, then Turner asked: “If the tune did have Scots roots, why was it unknown in Scotland?” That’s an excellent question. If the tune had Celtic roots, why don’t we find analogs in Scotland? And he offered the possible answer that the Highland clearances depopulated entire areas of Scotland to America. I don’t buy it exactly, though that could be a reason. But another musicologist has argued that it is an overwhelmingly Scottish tune because it was the pentatonic scale in a specifically Scottish way. And he goes into fifteen pages of explaining that. Turner feels that the fact that pipe bands all over the world have made the tune their own reinforces the idea of the Scottish origin, and we add a Scottish to the Southern origin. He really doesn’t give credit to the South very much in his book.
During the Civil Rights Campaign of the 1960’s, the song became associated with the movement. This was a focus on the Bill Moyers PBS documentary, to the extent that one came away with the feeling that the song had African-American origins. Now, you can see why this has been one of the arguments. It may not have started with Bill Moyers, but he certainly furthered it. Turner found it ironic that a hymn written by a white captain in the slave trade would be so used. Okay, that is ironic, but we might add that it’s a hymn that was first arranged and published by an unrepentant Southern slave owner. William Walker owned slaves and never apologized or felt guilt about it, as far as we know, and he dressed the wounds of Confederate soldiers, which we do know. Now, the attempt to rewrite history. We’ll start with that. Let’s hope it’s just out of ignorance, because I can see why people would be ignorant of the fact. None of you knew it. So, it’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. We’re trying to do something about it, and we’re going to have a struggle, because it’s already being appropriated. It’s being appropriated by a lot of people. And the song is big enough for that, but I want to give the man who did it at least some credit, to put the two together. Let’s do it right and then let everybody have it. The song is big enough for everybody, but we’re trying to talk about scholarly research here, and put the truth in order. So, we have a song whose popularity certainly has no signs of diminishing. I’ve heard it with Celtic Thunder. I’ve heard it with the Irish Tenors. I’ve heard it with Celtic Woman. Every Celtic group that I know will sing it, and it works, and they claim it as their own. And they’re right – by way of the South.
If one song of a non-patriotic nature is called upon for popular singing anywhere in the U.S. today, that one song is likely to be “Amazing Grace.” But this is only half the story, and I’ll be quick. The second half is less inspiring. Turner’s book outlines the progress, or, some might say, degradation of the song. Turner related that the defining moment of change came in 1900 in Chicago, when the hymn writer Edwin Excell muted the theology and modernized the tune, moving it a long way from shape-note roots to make it comfortable for the new urban industrial middle class. Excell dropped Newton’s final stanza and substituted the now familiar “when we’ve been there 10,000 years” which Harriet Beecher Stowe had added. Until Excell substituted it in 1900, Stowe’s verse had never appeared in a handbook as part of the song. Well, okay, it could have been good, but look what’s in the last stanza. Turner explains that through the last stanza, the emphasis in the song is thus shifted from God to man, no longer focusing on God choosing people, but on people choosing good works. There’s no mention of “God” or “Lord” or “Christ” in the last stanza, now. It’s all gone. It’s all changed. The new final verse made the hymn less likely to offend modern American sensibilities. As Turner put it: “Excell’s change was a key step in the gradual transformation of the hymn into a secular self-help anthem.” When Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Arlo Guthrie were popularizing the hymn in secular circles, the human-potential movement was in full sway. With the words “God” and “Lord” now entirely missing from the text, there was nothing to keep the new generation of the 1960’s from treating “grace” as a term for the way that life seems to heal and reward those who pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.
Joan Baez, in an interview with Turner in 2001, declared she couldn’t understand why anyone would think “Amazing Grace” was a religious song. Well, after hearing it her way, yeah, I can understand why. Why would anybody call this a religious song? And that’s why I think it’s so popular. For us, it’s a religious song, but for other people, it’s a self-help anthem. That way, everybody’s happy. Baez was mystified by the assertion. She was just mystified. This, then, was the slippery slope from Stowe and the Northern man-centered -isms, and -ologies of the 1850’s that removed God from the final stanza and made man the supreme focus. Remember Walt Whitman? Turner’s volume has an interesting analysis of the difference between Judy Collins’s acapella recording of “Amazing Grace” and Aretha Franklin’s Gospel rendition. This is really good. One night in New York, Collins was sitting in an encounter group, and the rage started getting out of hand. In order to calm things, she began to sing the song she’d known from her Methodist childhood. It worked. Her music producer, who was in the group, got her to include it in her next album. Says Turner: “This was Collins’s interpretation of a song born out of the human-potential movement, and it became world popular.” “On another night in Watts,” he compares, “Aretha Franklin recorded a Gospel album live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Collins took four minutes to sing four stanzas and repeat the first verse. Aretha Franklin took fourteen minutes for two verses.” Turner comments: “Franklin’s version went back to the long style of the holiness churches, where the tune is pulled apart wide enough to let the Spirit in.
In Gospel music. The point is not clarity and precision, but faithfulness to the movement of the Spirit, and as such, is at least closer to William Walker than to Collins.” In other words, Aretha Franklin is closer to William Walker’s original than Judy Collins. Turner has great and fulsome praise for Walker’s marriage of words and tune as “real genius.” He continues:
“It was a marriage made in Heaven. It was as though the tune had been written with these words in mind. The music behind “Amazing” had a sense of awe to it. All the music behind “Grace” sounded graceful. There was a rise to 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.”
One last section on American music history is in order. I agree with Joel Cohen, Music Director Emeritus of the Boston Camerata. Our music history has been written wrong and our past has been denied. He cited as an example the highly respected Grove’s Dictionary of Music, published in 1941. Grove complained that early 19th-century hymn books of the “less-learned type” were crude, but did prepare the way for better things later, more artistic creations and enterprises. Grove felt the early folk music was so trivial that he decided to attempt no summary of it. Cohen noted that Grove makes no mention of either William Walker or Southern Harmony and concluded: “Our official music history has misled us. The finest of the wheat has too often been thrown aside, and much energy is spent cataloging and canonizing the chaff. Americans awake! The media and the official circuits of distribution often ignore what is best in our musical heritage, and the public has been miseducated to prefer counterfeit culture.” Well, that’s a good phrase, “counterfeit culture” instead of the real thing. So, I’ll end with what’s not counterfeit culture, but the real thing. This is a 2003 recording of Walker’s song by our Anonymous Four. It closely follows the words, tune, and fa-sol-la method of the original. It, of course, thus uses the proper last stanza, referring to God rather than the “10,000 years” version of the modern corruption. I’m not going to say any more. We’re going to leave with William Walker’s strains. Thank you so much for listening.
Text found here and here (1854 ed.). This song should not be confused with the similarly named “French Broad River” by The Stillwater Hobos, or with “Song of the French Broad” by Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road.
To hear the rendition of the song originally played in Dr. Kibler’s lecture (an excellent rendition which the uploader sadly will not allow to be embedded), follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j860DeBluPA
The hymn “Jerusalem” should not be confused with the popular piece of the same name written by William Blake, set to music by Sir Hubert Perry, and famously orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar.
For details and lyrics, see: https://www.scottish-country-dancing-dictionary.com/braes-of-balquhither.html
The image of treading the winepress alone comes from Isaiah 63:1-3. Isaiah 63 (or, for that matter, Revelation 14) are strange passages to draw imagery from for a hymn about God’s Grace, given that both references to the wine press involve the terrible unleashing of God’s wrath.
The linked version was printed in 1946, but it is the Third Edition, which is the same as the 1941 version of Cohen’s critique.