Amazing Grace: A Jesus Music song?

Sometimes we forget how quickly a song can become a classic. For example, the English version we all know and love of “How Great Thou Art” was translated and published within the lifetime of many readers. As another example, though John Newton wrote the lyric to “Amazing Grace” over two centuries ago, it wasn’t paired with the melody we know until more recently. (He also didn’t write the “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” verse; that was a later addition.)

While the song was out there in the form we know it for years, it didn’t hold the place it holds as one of the most popular hymns until the 1960s. In fact, its rise was sudden enough that the Blackwood Brothers, when composing liner notes for their 1971 compilation Put Your Hand in the Hand, listed it with songs popularized by Jesus Music: 

But not all the songs included here are pure gospel music as such. For this album contains three songs which may be considered themes of the young people who are now turning to religion more than ever before. This religious naissance [sic], widely popularized in what has come to be called the “Jesus Revolution,” has spawned a mixture of the traditionally secular with contemporary folk or pop rock. This has produced such upbeat tunes as the title tune of this collection, Put Your Hand in the Hand, which was so successful as recorded by the young rock group, Ocean. Another song, Amazing Grace, became popular in folk circles and catapulted to the top of the music charts when performed by Judy Collins. Then there is Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel’s poignant affirmation of dedication and love. These pop-oriented songs with gospel overtones take on a new dimension when sung rousingly or quietly by the Blackwood Brothers.

Interesting perspective!

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11 Letters to the Editor

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  1. I, myself, actually prefer the real last verse of the song. It’s unfortunate that many people don’t even know it exists.

    • It’s a shame that people don’t know either of the last two verses! At least the Talleys did one of them on their 2009 classics project. That helps!

      • I’m well aware of your feelings for Chris Tomlin’s arrangement, but to his credit, he did revive the original last verse. 🙂 He also included another little-known verse, the one that begins “The Lord has promised good to me…”

      • “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail” or “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow”?

      • “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow.” I’m not familiar with the other verse. Actually though, in terms of scansion, if you took the “snow” verse and sang it to the tune with its usual rhythm, the cadencing would be a bit awkward. It only works in Tomlin’s arrangement because he’s tweaked the rhythm. So even though “When we’ve been there” isn’t original, it is smoother with the common tune.

      • Actually, the wording found in Olney Hymns flows fine; don’t know if Tomlin tweaked the wording there, too, though I’d deem it possible.

      • Yes, both can. It’s not a big difference, just a slight one. Compare, for instance, the flow of the lines “we’ve no less days” and “but God who called.” The downbeat on “God” doesn’t feel quite right.

  2. The two verses in the Chris Tomlin version use the exact same wording as the original. Tomlin fudges with the meter a bit, but the integrity is left intact.

    • Fair enough; thanks! Both can be sung easily enough with the familiar tune.

  3. The liner notes are true as referring to how Amazing Grace became a crossover hit in the sixties, but it was already popular in Christian circles since the early 1800 and was extensively in the southern and evangelical hymn books from the late 1800’s to

    The Wikipedia article is extensively footnoted and describes the American popularity of the hymn before Joan Baez was even born.

    The liner notes were probably the work of an RCA exec trying to find some reason to push the Blackwood Brothers as being “relevant” to the folk rock crowd that was popular in the late 60’s early 70’s. It wasn’t even the first time the Blackwood Brothers had recorded it. They had already recorded it in the mid to late 50’s (I don’t have my “Rock-a-my-soul” liner notes handy to check when). And Ernie Ford included it on his “Hymns at Home” record where he took favorite boyhood hymns from his home church hymnal and sang it with his family members in Bristol, TN

    • It was out there and known, but it wasn’t huge like it has been since the ’50s or ’60s.