Focus on grace

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

“Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)” is one of the most widely loved spiritual songs. The Mustard Seeds have two special versions of “Amazing grace” in our repertoire so far, and each takes the song in a different direction.

The more elaborate version is B.J. Davis’s arrangement for four-part choir of Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing grace (my chains are gone),” which preserves four of Newton’s original verses and adds a refrain that musically complements the familiar tune of the verses (the hymn tune New Britain). The verses are given some written-out melodic ornamentation:

Amazing grace (my chains are gone)

And the new refrain reflects on slavery, freedom and grace:

My chains are gone, I’ve been set free.
My God, my Saviour has ransomed me.
And like a flood His mercy reigns.
Unending love, amazing grace.

You can watch an interview with Chris Tomlin at New Song Café in which he talks about the process of composing the new refrain and plays part of the song.

The other version in the choir’s repertoire is essentially nothing but the opening refrain sung by the backing singers in Sam Cooke’s Soul arrangement of the early 1960s, subsequently arranged by Tony Backhouse and then Nick Prater. Most of the other features of the song have been stripped away to leave the emphasis on the close harmonies (clearly the lyrics “how sweet the sound” have been an inspiration):

Amazing grace arrangement by Nick Prater

In Prater’s version, Newton’s lyrics

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.

have been truncated and amended to

Amazing grace how sweet the sound!
saved a soul like me

You can see the wisdom of changing “wretch” to “soul” in this case, because the lyrics have been reduced to such a short refrain that every word receives intense emphasis.

Newton’s original hymn contains six verses, the word “wretch” appears only in the first verse, and yet this single word receives a lot of attention. Many singers find this word a stumbling-block – and not just in extra-short versions of the song – because they feel that to sing “a wretch like me” expresses self-loathing. This word can seem like a label that we would hate to adopt.

Fortunately, there are ways to sing and enjoy the song without altering the words. One of the simplest is to consider where the emphasis of the text lies, and the song’s title is a clue to this emphasis.

The original title of this hymn was “Faith’s review and expectation,” but it became known as “Amazing grace,” which expresses the main thrust of the song succinctly. Imagine how else you might title this song. It’s very hard to believe we could refer to the hymn as “I’m worthless and I don’t deserve grace.” Nor would we call it anything like “Through self-improvement I made myself a better person.”

This little exercise in titling shows that the emphasis is not really on evaluating or labelling “me” – whether or not the “me” in the song is a wretch – but on gratitude. In the first verse, the term “wretch” is simply used to say “I was unhappy and helpless and then I received grace, something I couldn’t have achieved for myself.” The focus is on grace – which is definitely welcome news for singers.

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