Although the birth of sound recording can be dated to 1877 when Thomas Edison made a tinfoil recording of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on his prototype machine, "Amazing Grace" was not recorded until 1922. This fact is hardly surprising given the typical penchant of record companies to record marches, standard popular tunes, classical music, and comedic songs and sketches in the years before World War I. By the 1920s, however, many in the recording industry became convinced that traditional music could be profitably marketed to immigrant groups, African-American communities, and white rural southerners. The blues, gospel, and proto-country music recorded by such companies as Okeh, Pace, Vocalion, Brunswick, Black Swan, Victor, Gennett, Paramount, and Columbia increasingly appealed to the public at large.
A key event in motivating record labels to expand their markets was Okeh's 1920 recording of Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," a song that surprised the industry by selling approximately 250,000 copies. Soon many other labels were recording blues, although Victor Records, one of the industry giants, initially stood aloof.
After its success with blues recordings, Okeh also expanded efforts to include recordings of white, southern vernacular music. Ralph Peer, a producer who had been involved with recording Mamie Smith, led this effort with on-location sessions in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1923. It was at one of these recording dates that Peer first recorded the popular local musician, Fiddlin' John Carson. Peer believed that the quality of Carson's recordings rendered them unfit for sale and initially only distributed 500 unlabeled copies of "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and "The Rooster's Going to Crow." When these copies rapidly sold out, Peer signed Carson to the label where he eventually recorded over 150 sides.
Commercial Recordings of "Amazing Grace"
The commercially recorded versions of "Amazing Grace" fit neatly into what the companies at the time termed either their "race" catalogs, or their "hillbilly" and "old-time" catalogs. Such terms denote a much neater division than ever actually existed between two indisputably intertwined musical traditions, but they provide a clear idea of how the market for recording industry was segmented in the 1920s.
The first company to record "Amazing Grace" was Brunswick Records which in 1922 released a small series of recordings of Sacred Harp songs. Brunswick created a special label for this series that incorporated shape-note notation in its design. Other recordings in the Sacred Harp tradition include J. T. Allison's Sacred Harp Singers, Denson-Parris Sacred Harp Singers, and Dye's Sacred Harp Singers.
Similar impulses must have underlain Okeh's recording of Fiddlin' John Carson's "At the Cross," a variant title of "Amazing Grace." The recording is somewhat anomalous when heard beside the rest of Carson's output, which occasionally references moonshine, and is often comedic and irreverent in tone. This may explain why the track was not released.
Several early recordings of "Amazing Grace" feature African-American "singing preachers," the most popular of whom was Reverend J. M. Gates. Gates viewed the song as "one of the good old familiar hymns" that would help his listeners return to the traditional religious values of the past. Gates' first recording for Columbia proved quite popular--dealers ordered 3,400 advanced copies and requested more than ten times that number for his second release.
Owing largely to the popularity of Gates' recordings, dozens of other black preachers made recordings of religious songs and sermons. Other black preachers who recorded "Amazing Grace" included J. C. Burnett (with a more fiery delivery than Gates'), Reverend M. L. Thrasher, and Reverend H. R. Tomlin. These performances usually were preceded by a short statement on the religious significance of the song. As well, the performances often included the practice of "lining out" the song, a traditional method of delivery in both the African- and Anglo-American religious traditions in which the preacher spoke a line of the song and the congregation sang it back.
Work of Folklorists
At the same time that commercial companies were recording "Amazing Grace" with an eye toward profit, folklorists were documenting the song for scholarly purposes. From its inception in 1928 the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk-Song sent collectors into the field first with wax cylinder recorders, then instantaneous disc recorders. Though somewhat limited in fidelity compared to the equipment used by the commercial companies, these recorders had the advantage of being portable. As such, field recordings could capture a performance in its intended physical and cultural context and often were accompanied by interviews documented on the recording or through field notes. Collectors such as the Lomax Family (John A., Alan, and Ruby T.), Herbert Halpert, Sydney Robertson, and John Henry Faulk made recordings that demonstrate the wide diffusion of "Amazing Grace" through many different communities.
There is considerable blending and crossover between the commercial and field recordings. Fiddlin' John Carson, for example, was known in his community as a traditional performer; his commercial repertoire derives from the Anglo-American fiddle tradition. Other performers, such as the Denson family made recordings for Bluebird in 1934 that were documented for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson in 1941.
In the same vein, some performances combine aspects of popular and folk cultures, which Herbert Halpert discusses with several performers on a recording made in 1939 in Vancleave, Mississippi:
Herbert Halpert: State your name and introduce the people here, please. We'd like to begin, please.
Noel Porter: This is Noel M. Porter the leader of the singing for the group of the Vancleave School district.
HH: What kind of singing do the people do in Vancleave district?
NP: Mostly sacred.
HH: What books? Do they use the books?
NP: We use a book, mostly the Cokesbury Hymnal. Sometimes the old standard hymn book is used here.
HH: I see. For what denomination is that?
NP: Methodist and Baptist, some Presbyterian, some Latter Day Saints. It's a mixed group, this is, singing tonight.
HH: I see, and what is that? Is that the shape note or the round note?
NP: This is the round note, mostly. We use some shape notes.
HH: Alright. Suppose you announce the number.
NP: First song will be the old song, "Amazing Grace," number one hundred twenty-two in the Cokesbury Hymnal. [Group Sings "Amazing Grace"]
HH: Can you tell me, is that the tune you have always heard for that, or do you know of any other tunes for "Amazing Grace"?
NP: Well we know several, yes.
HH: There are several? Are there older tunes? How old would you say that one is?
Singer: You're not singing the tune that's noted here.
NP: I know that.
Singer: The tune that's noted here is the old tune.
NP: Well. There are several old tunes. I don't know if the one we sang is about the oldest I knew. You think ["So Dark Death's Door"] is older?
HH: In other words you weren't singing the tune here. You were really singing another tune?
Singer: No the tune I first knew in my childhood was the one noted here.
HH: Excuse me now. What were you using the books for, just the words?
NP: Just the words.
HH: I see.
In this performance a printed version is adapted to a local aesthetic. The exchange demonstrates the complex interplay of popular culture represented by a commercially printed hymnal and folk traditions represented by a melody sung from memory--one of several melodies that could have been performed.
Similarly, it is challenging to make generalizations about ethnicity or class regarding the lyrics, melodies, or contexts of performance. Different communities countrywide adapted "Amazing Grace" as needed.
Discography of Recordings in the Library of Congress
This list contains early "Amazing Grace" recordings in the Library's Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division and the American Folklife Center Archive of Folk Culture. The blending of discographies from two different Library of Congress divisions represents an attempt to describe the performance practice of "Amazing Grace" during the early decades of the 20th century. The list intersperses unpublished field recordings with commercial recordings--regular folks sit side by side with the commercial stars of the day.
Entries are in the following format:
Song Title (matrix number) - Performer name (description, i.e., "vocal chorus") - rec. ca. mm/dd/yyyy. Recording location. Label issue no. - released mm/dd/yyyy (LC call #); label issue no - released mm/dd/yyyy (LC call #.); label issue no - released mm/dd/yyyy.
New Britain (8348) - The Original Sacred Harp Choir (vocal choir) - rec. ca. 07/1922. New York City. Brunswick 5150 (LC shelf no.: Brunswick 5150, 78A) - rel. 8/1922.
Amazing Grace (140986) - The Wisdom Sisters (vocal duet unaccompanied)- rec. 09/23/1925. New Orleans. - Columbia unissued.
Amazing Grace (W 142096) - The Wisdom Sisters (vcl duet unaccompanied)- rec. 04/23/1926. Atlanta, Ga. - Columbia 15093 - rel. 12/1926 (LC shelf no.: Columbia 15093, DLC 0106/1942; copy 2 Columbia 15093, 78A).
Amazing Grace (74291-B) - H. R. Tomlin (sermon with singing; assisted by Rigoletto Quintette of Morris Brown University) - rec. 08/19/1926. New York City. Okeh 8378; Rev. H. R. Tomlin & Rev. S. J. Worrell: complete recorded works in chronological order, 1926-1927: Document Records DOCD-5406 (LC shelf no.: SDA 69936).
Amazing Grace (107080) - Rev. J. M. Gates (sermon with singing) - rec. 09/07/1926. New York City. Paramount 7514; Perfect 114 (LC shelf no.: Perfect 114, 78A).
Amazing Grace (35987-2) - Rev. J. M. Gates (sermon with singing) - rec. 09/10/1926. Camden, New Jersey. Victor 20216-A - (Victor 20216-A, DLC 0325/1392; copy 2 Victor 20216, 78A); Rev. J. M. Gates complete recorded works in chronological order, vol. 2: Document CD DOCD-5432 (LC shelf no.: SDB 07297).
Amazing Grace (HAX-362) - Rev. J. M. Gates (sermon with singing) - rec. 12/06/1926. New York City. Gennett 6013 -; Champion 15199; Black Patti 8015; Herwin 92003; Paramount 12782; Silvertone 5021 (LC shelf no.: Silvertone 5021, 78A).
Amazing Grace (GEX-362) - Rev. J. M. Gates (sermon with singing) - rec. 12/06/1926. New York City. Gennett unissued; Rev. J. M. Gates complete recorded works in chronological order, vol. 4: Document Records DOCD-5442 (LC shelf no.: SDA 02707).
Abounding Sin & Abounding Grace (20000-1) - Rev. J. O. Hanes & male chorus (sermon & vocal group with piano) - rec. ca. 09/1927. Chicago, Ill. Paramount 3057 - (LC shelf no: Paramount 3057, DLC 0188/0975).
Wonderful Grace (W 145181-) - Rev. M. L. Thrasher & his gospel singers (vocal group) - rec. 11/09/1927. Atlanta Ga. Columbia 15239-D - rel. 06/1928.
Amazing Grace (BVE 41844-2) - Friendship Four (vocal quartet w/piano) - rec. 02/04/1928. Memphis, Tenn. Victor 21287- rel. ca. 05/1928.
Jewett (GE 113773) - J. T. Allison's Sacred Harp Singers (vocal group with organ) - rec. 05/07/1928. Richmond, Ind. Gennett 6675 - rel. 01/1929.
Amazing Grace - North Georgia Four (vocal quartet) - rec. ca. 06/1928. Chicago, Ill. Paramount 3149 - 04/1929.
Amazing Grace (GE 14568-A) - Dye's Sacred Harp Singers (vocal group with piano) - rec. 12/13/1928. Richmond, Ind. Gennett 6889 - 08/1929.
Amazing Grace (GE 15853) - Vaughan Quartet (vocal quartet with piano) - rec. 11/04/1929. Richmond, Ind. Vaughan 1750 (LC shelf no.: Vaughan 1750, 78A).
At the Cross (W 404624-B) - Fiddlin' John Carson & his Virginia Reelers (vocal with 2 violins, guitar and banjo) - rec. 12/09/1930. Atlanta, Ga. Okeh unissued (LC shelf no: NCPB 06098; vinyl pressing); Fiddlin' John Carson complete recorded works in chronological order, vol. 6: Document CD DOCD-8019 (LC shelf no.: SDA 07554).
New Britain (BVE 82897-1) - Denson-Parris Sacred Harp Singers (vocal group with piano) - rec. 08/03/1934. Atlanta, Ga. Bluebird B5597 - rel. 11/1934.
Amazing Grace (AFS 821 B2) - Aunt Molly Jackson - rec. by Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, ca. 09/1935. New York City. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3175 A3) - Mrs. Henry Garrett - rec. by Sidney Robertson, 11/23/1936. Crossville, Tenn. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3189 B6) - Gilbert Fike - rec. by Sidney Robertson, 11/28/1936. Little Rock, Ark. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 917 B2) - Mary Davis, Annie Harvey, Melinda Jones, Lucy McKeever, and Elsie Smith - rec. by John A. Lomax, 02/07/1937. Austin, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 1383 B1) - Joan Ayres, Georgia Ayres, Ruby Ayres, Lela Christian, Lucile Christian, Ruth Christian, Fern Hall, and Nan Milan - rec. by Alan Lomax and Elizabeth Lomax, 09/07/1937. Pine Mountain settlement school in Pine Mountain, Ky. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 1394 A1) - Marie Bennett, Charlie Black, Bill Garland, and Pauline Garland - rec. by Alan Lomax and Elizabeth Lomax, 09/10/1937. Arjay, Ky. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (64364) - Rev. J.C. Burnett and his congregation (sermons with singing) - rec. 08/01/1938. New York City. Decca 7494; Rev. J.C. Burnett complete recorded works in chronological order, vol. 2 Document Records DOCD-5558 (LC shelf no.: SDA 02714).
Amazing Grace (AFS 2748 B1 & 2) - Mrs. W. L. Martin - rec. by Herbert Halpert, 03/21/1939. Hillsville, Va. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 2939 B4) - Mrs. Vera Kilgor - rec. by Herbert Halpert, 05/03/1939. Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 2638 A2) - Mr. N. V. Braley and Mrs. N. V. Braley - rec. by John A. Lomax and Ruby T. Lomax, 05/05/1939. Medina, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3005 A1) - Mrs. Mary Shipp - rec. by Herbert Halpert, 05/13/1939. Byhalia, Miss. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3042 A2) - New Hope Baptist Church - rec. by Herbert Halpert, 05/21/1939. Meridian, Miss. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 2684 A1) - Jesse Allison, Vera Hall, and Dock Reed - rec .by John A. Lomax and Ruby T. Lomax, 05/26/1939. Livingston, Ala. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3104 A2) - Grover Bishop, Mr. Richard Walker, and Mrs. Richard Walker - rec. by Herbert Halpert, 06/08/1939. Magee, Miss. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3109 B) - Group of adults - rec. by Herbert Halpert, 06/09/1939. Vancleave, Miss. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 4470 B3) - Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter - rec. by Alan Lomax, ca. 08/1940. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 4470 B5) - Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter - rec by Alan Lomax, ca. 08/1940. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 3981 A1) - Rev. John R Gipson - rec. by John A. Lomax and Ruby T. Lomax, ca. 10/1940. Jasper, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 4071 B3) - Blind Willie McTell - rec. by John A. Lomax and Ruby T. Lomax, ca. 11/1940. Atlanta, Ga. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5028 A5d) - Katherine Wylie - rec. by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin, ca. 06/1941. Fredonia, N.Y. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5081 B3) - Stokes Haynes and R. R. Pierce - rec. by Robert Sonkin, 07/19/1941. Gee's Bend, Ala. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5201 B & 5202 A) - Cottonwood Baptist Church - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 07/1941. Garfield, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5204 B) - Friendly Will Baptist Church - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 07/1941. Austin, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5196 A) - Good Hope Baptist Association - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 07/1941. Austin, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5187 A) - Pleasant Hill Baptist Church - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 07/1941. Austin, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5456 B) - Shilo Baptist Church - rec. by John Henry Faulk, 08/03/1941. Manor, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5475 B3) - Rose Hill Baptist Church - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 08/1941. Plantersville, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5451 A5 & 5452 B1) - AME Church of San Marcos - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 09/1941. San Marcos, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 5448 A1) - Pleasant Grove Baptist Church - rec. by John Henry Faulk, ca. 09/1941. Austin County, Tex. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 6702 A4) - Sacred Harp Singing Society, led by Uncle Bill Hardeman - rec. by Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson, ca. 08/1942. Birmingham, Ala. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 6683 B2) - Bessemer Bradley - rec. by John Work, ca. 1942. Tenn. Unissued.
Amazing Grace (AFS 6674 B2) - Mr. I. D. Cantrell, Sr., Mrs. I. D. Cantrell, Sr., W. P. Cantrell, Miss May Lassiter, Mrs. L. L. McDowell, and Mrs. Ray Womack - rec. by Alan Lomax, ca. 1942. Smithville, Tenn. Unissued.
Bibliography of Print Resources
Barr, Steven C. The Almost Complete 78 rpm Record Dating Guide (II). Huntington Beach, CA: Yesterday Once Again, 1992, c1979.
Brooks, Tim, and Brian Rust. The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 vols. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, and Howard Rye. Blues & Gospel Records, 1890-1943, 4th ed. Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Laird, Ross. Brunswick Records: A Discography of Recordings, 1916-1931, 4 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Laird, Ross, and Brian Rust. Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Library of Congress. Check-list of Recorded Songs in the English Language in the Archive of American Folk Song to July, 1940. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1942.
Meade, Guthrie T., Jr. with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade. Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music. Chapel Hill, NC: Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries in Association with the John Edwards Memorial Forum, c2002.
Ruppli, Michel. The Decca Labels: A Discography, 6 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Russell, Tony. Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Rust, Brian. The Victor Master Book, Volume 2 (1925-1936). Stanhope, NJ: W. C. Allen, 1970.