Amazing Grace and the slave scale

One of the best things about research is finding information about something you know, but didn’t know. While reading Bound for Canaan¹ I learned the song, “Amazing Grace” was written by Rev. John Newton (1725-1807), a reformed slave captain. Perhaps seeing the slaves lay “close to each other, like books upon a shelf…cramped, in irons for the most part” (p. 19) and God’s grace made him evaluate his ways (and livelihood) and finally view the slaves as human beings, not just as product. (For he was once blind but now can see…)

This song also makes me think about how the slaves sang negro spirituals – looking to God for salvation, praising his word. While searching on YouTube for an appropriate version, I came across ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister and world-renowned vocal artist, Wintley Phipps’ explanation and version of “Amazing Grace.” He explains that negro spirituals use the pentatonic scale (the five notes on the piano keyboard) – the black keys!

Here is Mr. Phipps’ YouTube version of “Amazing Grace.”²

And the lyrics to the song:

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.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

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.³

¹Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005).

²“Wintley Phipps and Amazing Grace” [Video]. January 4, 2007, accessed November 27, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMF_24cQqT0.

³John Newton, Constitution Society, accessed November 29, 2010. http://www.constitution.org/col/amazing_grace.htm.

lay “close to each other, like books upon a shelf…cramped, are likewise in irons for the most part…
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Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 3:41 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have always loved this song but I never knew the history behind it. It adds a lot more meaning to something you thought you knew when you learn how it came to be. I must say I have a greater appreciation for the words to this song when I think about the things that inspired John Newton to write this song. How incredible.

  2. I appreciated learning about the pentatonic scale in this video. There is a depth of feeling about slavery that can be conveyed through music that words on a page cannot capture. I appreciate that the “Negro Spirituals” are part of the multimedia of this blog.

  3. I love Brother Phipp’s voice and his story about Amazing Grace is inspirational, but I’m afraid to say that much of his story just isn’t true.

    First, John Newton did not write the music, but only the text long after he left the slave trade (about 8 years prior to his death). He wrote the text to use in conjunction with one of his sermons. We don’t know if music was used with it or not.

    Second, the tune we now know as “Amazing Grace” was not combined with Newton’s text until 1829, long after his death. The tune was originally called, “New Britain”. It is a combination of two Scottish/Celtic tunes.

    Third, in all my research on the song, I have not found the term “slave scale”, in reference to the pentatonic scale, ever used in early America or any other time. The 5 tone pentatonic scale is common in folk music in Great Britain, Western Europe, some East European countries, Asia and many other places, so it is not especially an “African” invention.

    Something you might not know that is interesting is that Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, included a scene in which her main character sings Amazing Grace. In it she includes a verse that was not in John Newton’s original text. The verse is:

    “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
    bright shining as the sun,
    We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
    than when we’d first begun.”

    Apparently this verse was one either created by African-American slaves or at least passed around by oral tradition.

    Again, Brother Phipp’s voice is lovely and he has a lovely spirit. However, I think he may have let his emotions overly influence his history a bit.

    • Thank you for your insight to this. His voice is wonderful, but I wondered where the music was written and when it was applied. I learned he was a slave captain but didn’t realize the time span from departure of his trade to when he wrote the poem. Thank you for further educating me on this.


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