Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song
  • Alternative view 1 of Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song
  • Alternative view 2 of Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song

5.0 2
by Steve Turner, Judy Collins, Judy Collins

View All Available Formats & Editions

Behind our most beloved hymn is a fascinating story spanning continents, cultures, and centuries. Inspired by the way "Amazing Grace" continues to change and grow in popularity, acclaimed music writer Steve Turner embarks on a journey to trace the life of the hymn, from Olney, England, where it was written by former slave trader John Newton, to tiny Plantain Island


Behind our most beloved hymn is a fascinating story spanning continents, cultures, and centuries. Inspired by the way "Amazing Grace" continues to change and grow in popularity, acclaimed music writer Steve Turner embarks on a journey to trace the life of the hymn, from Olney, England, where it was written by former slave trader John Newton, to tiny Plantain Island off the coast of Africa, where Newton was held captive for almost a year, to the Kentucky-Tennessee border and other parts of the South, where the hymn first began to spread.

Newton had been rescued from Africa by a merchant ship when, during an eleven-hour storm on the Atlantic, he converted to Christianity. Years later, as a minister, he wrote the hymn for use among his congregation. Through the nineteenth century, "Amazing Grace" appeared in more and more hymn books, and in the twentieth century it rose to a gospel and folk standard before exploding into pop music. It has been recorded by artists as varied as Elvis Presley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tiny Tim, Al Green, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Chet Baker, and Destiny's Child. Amazing Grace closely examines this modern history of the hymn through personal interviews with recording artists.

From John Newton's incredible life story to the hymn's role in American spirituality and culture, Amazing Grace is an illuminating, thorough, and unprecedented musical history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This carefully crafted and finely probed book will stand as the definitive look at what is perhaps the most popular hymn in American history a song that Turner argues has "more than eleven hundred currently available albums featuring versions." Turner's previous books on music and musicians (Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye; Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption) have dealt with the religious themes behind the historical facts, and his newest is no exception. Turner begins by detailing the life of the song's author, John Newton, an 18th-century slave trader whose miraculous survival during an 11-hour storm at sea in 1748 sparked a religious conversion that led to his becoming a minister (and later an avowed abolitionist) and to writing the hymn in 1773. Turner's examination of Newton's life and how it influenced the words of "Amazing Grace" gives an added resonance to the second half of his book. From the song's early 20th-century popularity in gospel music to its adoption by folk singers in the 1950s, from Judy Collins's hit single in the early 1970s to openly secular interpretations by artists and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, the central historical paradox of Newton's specifically religious song, Turner observes, is that "although the song still holds its original meaning for millions of Christians around the world, it now has a parallel existence outside the church, where often the only link is a shared belief that it is a song about hope." (Nov.) Forecast: While this may be quite popular around various religious holidays, it deserves a wide audience, and Turner's eminently readable presentation of a range of historical and musical documentation should make this a standard in the field of popular music criticism. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
These two works treat classics of the American popular song cannon. New York Times contributor Rosen offers a thoroughly researched book that traces the history of the beloved Irving Berlin song from its conception to the present. In an accessible style, with marvelous turns of phrase, he addresses the phenomenally popular recordings by Bing Crosby, the song's pivotal role in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, and its iconic status as one of the best-selling song sheets of the 20th century. Rosen delves into Berlin's family life, his repudiation of his orthodox Jewish upbringing, and his compositional technique. In addition, Rosen considers when the song was actually written, its popularity among troops during World War II, and the "competition" between "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" as the favorite Irving Berlin song, especially in the context of 9/11. Along the way, Rosen limns the cultural underpinnings of the song and the role of Jewish Americans in the creative arts, with somewhat mixed results; his intention is admirable, but at times he overstates his case and resorts to odd word or phrase choices. However, these and a few other errors are small distractions from one of the first available titles to treat this specific song. Recommended for all collections. Turner, a respected British music biographer (Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye), divides his excellent book into two almost even halves. Part 1, "Creation," tells the story of John Newton (1725-1807), the lyricist of "Amazing Grace." Part 2, "Dissemination," provides new evidence for the tune's origin, explains how the words and a variety of tunes came together until the familiar match was arrived at, reveals which stanzas are commonly sung, and discusses popularizers like Mahalia Jackson and Judy Collins (who wrote the foreword). Turner's account of Newton's life reads like a good suspense novel: he carefully sets the stage for Newton's conversion from slave trader to abolitionist champion while presenting his experiences as a country clergyman and relationships with poet William Cowper and politician William Wilberforce, among others. The hyperbolic subtitle does not originate with the author, but the book is fully researched and supplemented by useful appendixes, including a discography and a "Who's Who" of performers who recorded the song, as well as up-to-date references to events in 2002. William Phipps's Amazing Grace in John Newton is the most recent comparable title, but it has a more academic slant and focuses more on the person than the song. Heartily recommended for all collections.-Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British music writer Turner (Trouble Man, 2000, etc.) pens an informative biography of the man who wrote "Amazing Grace" and a comprehensive chronicle of the hymn’s journey to cultural iconhood. Born in 1725 in London, the son of a prosperous sea captain, John Newton had a rebellious nature that in his youth warred with his religious impulses. Press-ganged into the service of the Royal Navy, he deserted, was found, beaten, and returned to the ship, which then set sail for West Africa. There, Newton left the ship to work for a slave trader on Plantain Island. It was a miserable existence: the food was bad, the climate awful, and his employers tough. But Newton as yet had no sympathy for the plight of the slaves themselves; Turner suggests that his guilt about being involved in the slave trade came long after the 1748 storm at sea during which Newton encountered God’s grace, soon to be immortalized in his hymn. Determined to change his life, he left the sea and became a minister. Back in England, he preached, wrote hymns, and became the confidant of such luminaries as Lord Dartmouth (after whom the American college is named); the poet William Cowper; and British abolitionist William Wilberforce. "Amazing Grace" appeared in hymnals during Newton’s life and then made its way to the US, where it became a staple at revival meetings. Turner traces its earliest published American appearance, the origin of the tune that would be associated with it, and its growing audience. He shows the hymn being played by pipe bands at funerals, recorded by musicians as different as Mahalia Jackson and Sinead O’Connor, and sung at a London rock festival to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. He alsodetails the influence of versions by Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Pipe Band. A sensitive and thoughtful take on a much-loved song.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In a man of war, you have the collected filth of jails.
Condemned criminals have the alternative of hanging
or entering on board. There's not a vice committed
on shore, but is practised here.
-- Edward Thompson, A Sailor's Letters, 1767

Sent Lieutenant Ruffin with 31 men on board the Betsy Tender to impress seamen.
-- Captain Philip Carteret, logbook entry, February 6, 1744

I am going from England with a good prospect of improving my fortune, and please myself with hopes of being one day able to make you proposals of certainty if I find you undisposed when I come back.
-- John Newton, letter to mary catlett, 1744

John Newton, a seventeen-year-old sailor, was standing on the deck of a ship anchored off Venice in the Spring of 1743. The sun was just slipping beneath the horizon. Out of the shadows came a figure that stopped in front of him and held out a ring, urging him to take it. If he was to accept it, and treasure it, his life would be crowned with happiness and success. If he was to refuse or lose it, he would be dogged by trouble and misery. Newton accepted the challenge. He had always been attracted to the idea of having total mastery of his destiny.

As the bearer of the ring slipped back into the shadows, a second anonymous figure came to him, this one pouring scorn on the promises that had just been made and accusing him of being ignorant and naive. How could blessings emanate from something so small and insignificant? How could he have placed such trust in someone who didn't back up his claim with evidence? He advised Newton to shun such superstition and getrid of the ring. Newton jumped to its defense but his arguments weren't sufficient and so he slipped the gold band from his finger and threw it in the Gulf of Venice.

The moment it disappeared beneath the water, a wall of fire shot into the air around the city, lighting up the night sky. It was as if a mechanism had been triggered to unleash a terrifying power. Seeing the look of panic spreading across Newton's sweating face, his accuser, with a smug grin, revealed that what he had thrown away was not a mere gold ring, which could easily be replaced, but all the mercy that God had stored up for him. His sins could now never be forgiven. John Newton had just thrown away his only chance of salvation.

As the implications dawned on him, a third visitor approached. The face was obscured by shadow, making it difficult for him to tell if it was someone new or whether, as he suspected, it was the original ring bearer. Newton admitted what he had done and accepted that he had done it voluntarily and knew what the terrible consequences would be. The visitor, surprisingly, was sympathetic and asked him if he would handle things differently if given a second chance.

Before Newton could reply the man dove into the water and surfaced with the ring. The flames around the city were immediately extinguished, and the accuser, who it now became clear had been lurking in the background throughout, slunk away defeated. Relieved beyond words, Newton stepped forward to reclaim the ring. But the visitor sharply withdrew it, saying, "If you should be entrusted with this ring again, you would very soon bring yourself into the same distress. You are not able to keep it, but I will preserve it for you. Whenever it is needful, I will produce it on your behalf."

Thinking about this dramatic dream many years later Newton could see the spiritual allegory. It was the story of his life; the golden gift of gospel truth handed to him as a child, that gift given up in the face of taunts and tempting arguments, the destructive effects of this abandonment and the opportunity, eventually, to begin again. In retrospect he saw that it had been "a last warning" but at the time he had seen it only as a disturbing and graphic vision, one that was powerful enough to rob him of sleep and appetite for a few days but not powerful enough to arrest his moral and spiritual decline.

The dream came to him when he was actually on a ship in the Mediterranean, Venice having been a recent port of call. The image of the ring thrown in the water was almost certainly suggested by the annual Venetian ceremony sposalizio del mare, in which decorated barges full of nobles sailed out to drop a consecrated ring into the sea. It was a symbolic marriage of city and ocean, acknowledging Venice's dependence on the surrounding sea and its need to be on good terms with an element that could bring it wealth or wash it away.

Whether Newton had seen the ceremony, which took place on Ascension Day, he never said. He may simply have heard about it in Venice or he may have been aware of Canaletto's painting The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, which had been completed just thirteen years before. He was aware of the ritual because he later mentioned it in a letter, referring to it as "a foolish ceremony or marriage between the republic and the Adriatic."

Newton had been born on July 24, 1725, in Wapping, London, close to the Tower of London and on the north bank of the River Thames. It was an area dominated by Britain's then-flourishing shipping industry. Five years before, Stow's updated Survey of London said that Wapping was "chiefly inhabited by seafaring men, and tradesmen dealing in commodities for the supply of shipping and shipmen. It stands exceeding thick with buildings, and is very populous having been very much improved by human industry."

Newton's father, also John Newton, was one such seafaring man. He worked as the commander of various merchant ships trading in the Mediterranean, and each voyage would take him away from home for up to three years. Despite having been educated by Jesuits in Spain he was not, according to his son, "affected by religion" and was rather pompous and aloof. Newton's mother, Elizabeth, seems to have been his opposite ...

Amazing Grace. Copyright © by Steve Turner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Steve Turner is the author of Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye, A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles' Song, Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption, Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster, and Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now. His articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q, and the London Times. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago