May 2, 2007 History of the Hymn "Amazing Grace" Now Online
Contact: Guy Lamolinara (202) 707-9217
A new Web site devoted to the history of the hymn “Amazing Grace” documents the song’s origins from the late 1700s to the current century, as well as its more than 3,000 published recordings.
This site, available at https://memory.loc.gov/cocoon/ihas/html/grace/grace-home.html, is a joint venture of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, the Music Division and the American Folklife Center.
Since its creation in 1779 in England, “Amazing Grace” has grown in popularity to become one of the best-known musical works in the world. This Web site explores its history through items from the collections of the Library of Congress -- from the earliest printing of the song to various performances of it on sound recordings.
The Library’s Chasanoff/Elozua Amazing Grace Collection comprises 3,049 published recordings of the hymn by different individual musicians or musical ensembles. The audio collection and database, compiled by Allan Chasanoff and Raymon Elozua and given to the Library in 2004, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest collection of recordings of a single musical work. The Web site includes a number of selections from the collection, from gospel renditions by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, to an Elvis Presley recording, country versions by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, to rock versions by the Byrds and the Lemonheads. A database for the entire collection can be searched on the site, and the complete audio collection is available for listening in the Recorded Sound Reference Center in the Library’s Madison Building in Washington.
The Web site also contains early and unpublished recorded versions of “Amazing Grace.” The first company to record the familiar melody, which at the time was called “New Britain,” was Brunswick Records, which in 1922 released a small series of recordings of so-called Sacred Harp songs. Recordings from the American Folklife Center made by folklorists Herbert Halpert, John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, among others, give insight into local traditions of “Amazing Grace” performances during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
The Web site contains the very first printing of “Amazing Grace,” in “Olney Hymns in Three Books,” by Englishman John Newton, published in 1779. The hymn describes the joy and peace of a soul uplifted from despair to salvation through the gift of grace. Newton worked as a slave trader early in his life, yet he later became rector of a parish in Olney, England, and fought for the abolition of slavery.
Although Newton first wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” in 1772, it was not until 60 years later that the text was wed to the tune to which it is sung today. The Web site contains several examples of early printed versions of “Amazing Grace” that use a variety of tunes and arrangements. “The Virginia Harmony,” an early tune book printed in 1831, first used the melody that we have now come to associate with “Amazing Grace,” but did not match the tune to the words of the hymn. Another tune book, The “Southern Harmony,” printed in 1831, contains the earliest pairing of the words for “Amazing Grace” with the tune that we have now come to associate with the hymn. Subsequent hymnals from the 19th and early 20th centuries, also featured on the Web site, show how the arrangements for the tune evolved over the years.
The site contains additional educational resources such as an illustrated timeline, essays on the history of “Amazing Grace,” a discography and a selected bibliography.