Tag Archives: John Newton

“Amazing Grace”: The Consolations of Musicology?

These are my cranky, perhaps inappropriately negative, thoughts about this Wintley Phipps video that’s making the rounds on YouTube:
If you’re not in the mood for some cranky, perhaps inappropriately negative, thoughts, don’t read on.  It’s not my intention to force them on anyone.
I love “Amazing Grace,” of course, and that’s an interesting conjecture from Mr. Phipps.
Some things about it–the entire presentation, not the conjecture–bother me, though.  It’s a nice story and the overall intent is, I’m sure, innocent and edifying.  So I’m not sure how I feel about my being bothered.
I don’t know enough about music (the technical aspects) to even begin to judge if it might be true.  I’ve read a lot about black music, however, and do know that I’ve never heard the precise term “slave scale” before. 
Maybe that’s a deficiency in my reading.  Googling it didn’t bring up much, either, beyond links to this video.
Certainly it is true that there was a lot of sharing and influence going back and forth as a result of the slave trade.  Usually it’s all but impossible to nail them down, however–the trail of specific tunes just goes cold before you get to the point of origination.
It is the entire presentation here made me just a bit uncomfortable.
Maybe I’ve been ruined by the all the close readings folk were doing of black mannerisms back in the ’60s–most famously, the contrasts between, say, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and the personas they adopted before the audience:  Armstrong with his eyes rolling, eyebrows arched in amusement, smiling broadly all the time–almost “step-an’-fetch-it”; Davis with his perpetual scowl, eyes hidden behind shades, mouth expressionless, often turning his back to the audience–but seeing a black man before a largely white audience doing all those “I’m a happy, harmless negro” things–shaking his head, grinning, etc.,  . . . well, I won’t say it actually bothers me.  But it reminds me of those ’60s conversations and it makes me wonder if I should be bothered?  Or should I just let it go?  People have a right to make whatever faces they want, right?
I don’t know.
But there’s several other things.  The name-dropping–“I went to the Library of Congress”–as if a copy of the sheet music to the song there is somehow more authentic and telling than one you’d find elswhere.  It strikes me as something close to a con.
Then there’s this:  stanza 6, the “When we’ve been there a thousand years” verse was not written by Newton, but was added later.  This is pretty common knowledge (most hymnals indicate as much) so it’s rather odd for someone to say he’s going to sing it as Newton heard it coming up out of the belly of the ship.  Obviously, this is no big crime–most people think of the verse as integral to the hymn, so maybe he just sang it so as not to leave the audience hanging.  But it makes me wonder.
Then, in the actual performance, we get those warm, swelling synthesizers–I’m pretty sure that’s how Newton heard it!–and everything about the sound says, “This performance has been crafted for you, my audience–it’s designed to please you.”
And that strikes me as symptomatic of the whole thing.  In the end it’s a warm, consoling tale–a white man, taking inspiration from an African melody, the moans of the slaves redeemed by their being embedded in this wonderful hymn that’s done so much good in the world.  “Everything’s alright,” the lecture, the performance, the gestures and the instrumentation seem to be saying.
And, in the very end of ends–when the Lamb that was slain gathers His Jewels and lays out the wedding banquet for the Bride–everything will be alright, so, again, I wonder if it’s right to question this, but, given the magnitude of the crime, of the suffering and, too, of the sacrifice Christ made to pay for Newton’s sins and all the others–it just seems premature to wrap it all up in a nice, comforting package such as this.
Contrast that with Bob Dylan’s meditation on slavery and the music made by one descendent of slaves, the blues singer “Blind Willie McTell” (that’s the name of the song, too.)
It begins
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”
It highlights the consequences–judgment–that sin calls down.  Beginning this way, Dylan insists you don’t think about these things at all unless you recognize the basic fact of GUILT.  The inclusion of “Jerusalem” of course removes the suspicion that this is just another anti-American spasm–sin and guilt know no national boundaries.
In more recent performances Dylan sings “to New Jerusalem,” which raises some interesting theological issues.  You want to say, “wait a second, Bob, the guilt and condemnation doesn’t reach to NEW Jerusalem,” and that’s right.  Though it may not be what Dylan’s trying to say, either.  Maybe he’s just nodding at the fact that while every tear will be wiped away, the tears are there, just as Christ’s risen body still bears the marks of the crucifixion.  In other words, while sin is forgiven, it isn’t as if it never happened.
Skipping over the intertwined sories of McTell’s career and American slavery, we come to the last stanza.
So far, the song has raised the very question that arises from watching the Phipps video:  yes, there was all that suffering, but since it gave us the blues–and gospel–and so much else, maybe it’s alright for us to look on the bright side and see a kind of historical redemption occuring here?  Maybe it’s all part of the plan?
The last verse  doesn’t exactly say no.  Dylan doesn’t answer the question the song poses.  He just ends with this:
Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
If there’s more to say than that, Dylan’s not saying it.  Why not?  Maybe it’s not because there isn’t an answer, but because we don’t have a right to it, or its consolations, whatever they may be, even if there is.

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