Sunday, June 22, 2008

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

Wikipedia says: "John Newton, the author of the lyrics to Amazing Grace, was born in 1725 in Wapping, England. ...After a brief time in the Royal Navy, Newton began his career in slave trading. The turning point in Newton's spiritual life was a violent storm that occurred one night while at sea. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept overboard."

This was brought to mind because of the funeral of Tim Russert: they used a single bagpiper playing the Appalachian version of Amazing Grace over the picture of the rainbow that appeared at the conclusion of the memorial service. That brought a number of things to mind.

Back in the late '50s, when I was a graduate student at Columbia, their adult education department invited Pete Seeger to give a series of illustrated lectures on American Folk Music. This was a way of giving a series of informal concerts in a format that allowed the audience to feel they were improving themselves, but Pete took it seriously. Most of the audience were my age or older, and were used to the style of Burl Ives and his generation: who used "parlor versions"--singing the lyrics clearly to simplified versions of the folk tunes.

For these lectures Pete took the point of view of his step-brother Mike, and tried to get us to understand how the songs were really performed and why. He brought in a log and an axe and chopped it in two while singing a work song. And he sang Amazing Grace in a slow, unaccompanied version with all the ruffles and flourishes that was characteristic of the Appalachian mountains where the traditional styles of performance still existed. A-a-maz-i-i-ng Grace ... I can still remember how that sounded 50 years later.

A few years later, when I was working at Yale and had my first real vacation, I went to London. There I met Louis Killen, who introduced me to a number of other english singers, and I started to understand how the vocal flourishes that I had heard Pete sing fit into a vital tradition. When I came back I started the New Haven Folk Music Society, and we started holding sessions similar to the British Folk Clubs. We didn't have any money to hire professional performers, so we had to depend on volunteers. Since I was always there I often had to start things going until some more talented performer arrived, which had the benefit that I became inured to performing without the assurance that I would be admired. But I did learn some of the decorations that Lou Killen used in his performances.

When I went back to London in 1965 Lou was somewhere else, so I went around to the folk clubs by myself. In one I was introduced to Bob Dylan, since our hosts were surprised that, as American Folk Singers, we didn't already know one another. In England al the folk singers knew one another. In another club I was asked to sing in what would be an "open mike" session if they had had microphones. I sang Amazing Grace with all the flourishes that I had learned from Pete Seeger and some from Lou Killen. They were amazed. because in England Amazing Grace was just a hymn-book staple that nobody listened to any more.

Later that evening I was approached by a young American couple who were touring Britain earning their upkeep by singing at the clubs. They asked if I minded if they added Amazing Grace to their repertoire, since they had forgotten how it sounded with the Appalachian decorations. I told them to feel free: I was going back after a short stay and was unlikely to do any more performances in England.

I met them again at a Newport Folk Festival a couple of years later. They told me that they had performed that decorated version of Amazing Grace all over England and Scotland and that audiences loved it. A year or so after that, Amazing Grace was played by an Edinburg Pipe Band on a record released in the US, in just the way I had learned it from Pete Seeger.

And it still is a staple of the bagpipe repertoire.

And I suppose it's my fault.

Note: The version that you hear when you click on "Amazing Grace" in the first line is sung by Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie at Gerde's Folk City in the early 1960s. If I listen carefully I can hear someone singing a high harmony out back, and I think it is me. I was certainly there singing that on that night.