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We’re in Daytona Beach right now, preparing to celebrate with Simon and Elizabeth as they are wed today.  Last night at the rehearsal dinner, we sang one of my favorite hymns, “Amazing Grace.”  I love the hymn for all its passion and power, and for the back story that gives the song all its richness and glory.  It’s not just a hymn written from abstract theological principles.  It’s a song rising from the belly of a slave ship and from the heart of a slave trader sovereignly reborn from above. It’s a hymn that crosses the Atlantic and blends the hearts of black and white. It’s a hymn that joins heaven and earth and lifts the soul upward.

But did you know that the tune to “Amazing Grace” probably originates with an African chant of mourning?  And did you know the tune could be played with just the black keys of the piano?  Listen as Wintley Phipps explains then sings.  This nine minutes will lift you by measures toward heaven.

HT: Hedley via Already Not Yet

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12 thoughts on “The Black Keys to “Amazing Grace””

  1. Wyeth Duncan says:

    I did not know about the connection between slave melodies and the Pentatonic scale (I should have)–very interesting. I think I’ll sit down at my own piano today and engage in some “black note” exploration. Thanks for posting this!

  2. John says:

    Wow. Great, great video. Thank you.

  3. John says:

    Oh, yeah, Wyeth – ever play the blues? Black notes, baby, black notes.

  4. Amazing. Everyone who belongs to Jesus knows the sorrow of slavery, and the joy of being set free in Jesus. I’m going to have our music pastor read this. Thanks again.

  5. HC says:

    It is a great, heart-warming story, but unfortunately, it is not true. Newton wrote the words of the hymn as a poem, which was how it was published in 1779. We have no idea whether he sang it to any particular tune, but we do know that the melody it is currently sung with (New Britain) was not associated with the song until the 1830’s. Before that time, it was undoubtedly sung to numerous other melodies.

  6. HC says:

    To be clear, it allows sentimentality to replace historical fact. Yes, John Newton (1725-1807) was a slave trader (until 1754), and, yes, John Newton was later ordained an Anglican priest (in 1764), and, yes, John Newton penned the hymn text , “Amazing Grace” (published without music in 1779 in “Olney Hymns,” a text collection co-authored with William Cowper). Yes, the indigenous folk melodies of Africa are generally pentatonic (as is true of the folksong of most every culture on the planet), and, yes, the song of African slaves was often characterized by the musical traditions of their homeland (though the all-important role of drumming was regularly discouraged and even prohibited by slave owners), and, yes, both black and white spirituals in North America are also often pentatonic (more a product of their folk origin than of any sort of cross-culturization).

    However, the well-known folk tune now universally associated with Newton’s text originated on this continent, first appearing in print with a different text in 1829 in the American folk hymnal, “Columbian Harmony.” The tune and Newton’s text did not come together until 1835 (28 years after Newton’s death) when hymnal editor William Walker paired them in “Southern Harmony,” a text and tune collection published, ironically, in New Haven, Connecticut. Thus, despite the romance of Winley Phipps’ story of Newton “setting his words to a slave melody,” and of a similar anachronistic implication in a recent popular movie about the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in England, Newton, no doubt, never heard, sang, or even encountered the melody now so closely associated with his famous words.

    Does that historical fact in any way diminish the significance of this beloved hymn and its familiar tune? Absolutely, not! On the other hand, attempting to increase its significance through hymnological mythology is not only irresponsible, but, in this instance, absolutely unecessary.

  7. Kyle says:

    Thanks, HC. I was actually stopping by to post something along the same lines, but clearly I don’t need to, since you’ve covered it so ably.

    I get tired of colloquial re-writes of history for the purpose of “greater” emotional impact. This sort of things is in the same vein as people who draw weird comparisons between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (both were assassinated – Lincoln in Ford Theater, and Kennedy in a Ford Lincoln – oh my goodness!).

    “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful and powerful ode to God’s saving mercy, with or without the added irony of a so-called slave melody.


  8. Thanks for the correction. It seems like there might be a biblical lesson or two in there about the ways we can inadvertently be happier with a pleasant untruth than a less pleasant truth… :)

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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