The slavery past of the ‘most beloved’ US song

However it was performed, Amazing Grace was a spiritual tonic in troubled times: a song of limitless emotional utility. But the editor of one hymnal complained that the pop deluge “cast a sentimental shadow over this hymn, presumably because those performers do not understand the experience of salvation that so amazed Newton”.

A song of salvation?

Amazing Grace has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Susan Boyle and Sufjan Stevens, and has figured in ceremonies of national grief, from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to 9/11. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a London vicar’s deployment of Judy Collins’ version as he cycled around empty streets moved Collins to record it again with a virtual choir of 1000 singers from 30 countries.

“It’s words that have tremendous meaning for huge numbers of people set against a musical background that is simple yet memorable,” says Walvin. “An extraordinary mix.”

As for its author, the UK’s anguished reckoning with its slave-trading history has made the white-saviour story told in 2006’s Amazing Grace harder to swallow. “No serious historian thinks of it like that now,” says Walvin. “One of the problems that Brits face is that our relationship with slavery is the way we ended it. Abolition is a smokescreen between us and slavery itself.”

As the names of slave traders are removed from buildings, and their statues replaced, it might seem as if John Newton’s active complicity would taint his greatest hymn. But Walvin believes that Amazing Grace is simply too beloved to be tarnished.

“I can’t think of another song that has such universal appeal,” he says. “It touches so many people. An Englishman wrote a hymn in the late 18th Century that now is hugely popular with the descendants of the people he shipped across the Atlantic. The work transcends the man who did it.”

Amazing Grace: The Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn by James Walvin (University of California Press) is out now.

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