John Newton and a Wretch Like Me

Amazing GraceI love the lyrics of “Be Still, My Soul” set to the music of Sibelius’ “Finlandia Hymn,” and I often experience a quiet peace while listening to the words and melody.

But no song grips my soul and arouses my emotions the way “Amazing Grace” does.

  [“…and grace will lead me home.”] is among the lines that give me hope during rough patches on my journey.

Tears come when I listen to the lyrics of this song.

Bagpipers playing it make me gasp for breath.

In those tearful, breathless moments I find hope; gritty patience leads to it—hope, that is—and then faith that divine grace can craft a better life and world occurs to me.

Kathleen Norris, in her thought-provoking book Amazing Grace, writes about the history of the word “wretch” evolving from “…a wanderer, an adventurer, a knight errant…an exile, a banished person” to “one who would be miserable anywhere. To some extent we have internalized the word to mean someone who is exiled from being at peace within the self.” She explores this further when she writes: “Is there a fabled ‘someone’ who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh-unforgivable things that he or she has done?”

Are we not, all of us, somewhere in our souls broken, beset by emotional pain, and yearning to be healed?

The author continues: “I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness—exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance—has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.”

Many have found the lyrics comforting in unbearable times—being lost, filled with fear, surrounded by “dangers, toils, and snares”—and then hope that they will prevail through divine grace.

Civil War soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, were given copies of the hymn. The Cherokee sang the song for strength along the Trail of Tears. Blind Willie McTell, Georgia blues legend, wrote, [“Amazing Grace”] was “a tune they used to hum back in the days when they’d be picking cotton.”  During the Civil Rights Movement and protests over the Vietnam War the iconic hymn gave solace and strength to all who heard, hummed, or sang the verses.

Bill Moyers attended a performance at Lincoln Center, and observed “… the audience consisted of Christians and non-Christians [noting] that it had an equal impact on everybody in attendance, unifying them.”

Gospel singer Marion Williams said it best: “That’s a song that gets to everybody.”

Oh, how sweet the sound.

Look at this wonderful motley crew who’ve “covered” the hymn, and though this is a small sample from the thousands who’ve done so, what a group!

Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, Arlo Guthrie, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Harlem Gospel Singers, Jessye Norman, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and the Harlem Boys Choir, Juliette Hamilton and Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Linda Hopkins, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Sam Cooke, Soweto Gospel Choir, The Byrds, The Three Tenors, U2, Whitney Houston, Willie Nelson, and many of us who’ve sung or heard the song in various settings from street corners to cathedrals, public squares to mountain tops, great halls to alleyways, and always inspiring.

Years ago I was skiing in Aspen, Colorado, and on this particular day at Aspen Highlands I’d met and had a beer with the head of the ski school, who graciously invited me to ski with him. A significant snowfall had begun prompting his suggestion that we meet the next morning to take the first chairlifts to the top of the mountain for a pristine powder run. We met and proceeded to ride the chairs to the summit.

It was a bright day with only one cloud in sight, the one that obscured the peak—our destination. The air temperature had dropped, and wisps of clouds and dense fog rolled past us, limiting visibility as we ascended the final stretch. There was no stillness in my soul, and I became lost in fear and doubt considering the unthinkable—riding the chair back down the uppermost slope and into the sunlight. And then, from high above in the shrouded mountaintop we heard the plaintive tones of a bagpipe. At first the sounds were intermittent as the wind and moist air muffled them. And then he appeared off to our left, a lonely piper perched on an outcropping playing a familiar tune—“Amazing Grace.”

As we stood preparing for the descent, the sounds of the bagpipe persisted and gave me the courage I thought I’d lost. I remember my companion’s words.

“Gets me too,” he shouted, “every time.”

And then we descended the mountain.

 

(Photo courtesy of Munro Bagpiper)

 

 

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19 Comments

  1. Carmen Apodaca

    I once was blind but now I’m just a bit short sighted so I cling to the words of this song. Yes it grips my soul and somehow the bag pipes were made for this tune. Thanks for reminding me how precious is that grace and I pray it will guide me through my life.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Carmen,
      Isn’t it wonderful the way music transcends our “sight” to find it’s way into our souls. Until I heard Amazing Grace performed by a piper I thought enjoying bagpipes was an acquired taste. That misperception changed within the first notes of the hymn that I heard the piper play, and I’m forever grateful.
      Thanks,
      Roger

      Reply
  2. Alan

    I heard recently that although the words were written by Newton, the tune may have been derived from the chants of the slaves in the belly if the ships. The notes can be played on the black keys of the piano. Grace and hope rising out of despair. Good word for all. Thanks for the reflections.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Yes, Alan, I read that too. “Negro Spirituals” are [I believe] composed using the ebony keys on a piano, and are frequently played on those keys only. I cannot imagine the pain and despair suffered in the bowels of those ships, and to somehow find hope amidst the unthinkable is beyond me.
      Thanks for reading and commenting,
      Roger

      Reply
  3. Roy M Carlisle

    Roger, and in 1983 I edited and published John Pollock’s wonderful book: Amazing Grace: The Dramatic Life Story of John Newton. It was all news to me, Newton’s story and the story of the song, and the book is out of print, of course, but if you can pick up a used copy, it is well worth the pennies and the effort. John Pollock was a British writer who was the official biographer for Billy Graham and I published that book also. John was himself a wonderful Christian gentleman and I was privileged to work with him. So now you know almost all of the rest of the story! Keep the faith my brother, Roy

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Roy,
      I’ll look for a copy of the book. Thanks for the lead. I’m keepin’ the faith, stumbling at times, faltering at others, but the junkyard dog in me, coupled with the companionship of fellow wayfarers like yourself, keeps me headed down the path!
      I appreciate your reading my words and commenting.
      Roger

      Reply
  4. JoAnne Kurman

    A pastor asked me to replace “wretch” with “soul” when singing for a church service many years ago. My immediate reaction as a songwriter was that one does not change the lyric to such a holy song as Amazing Grace or any song, for that matter. The lyricist wrote what he meant. But it went deeper then that and you helped give voice to my feelings, Roger, when you wrote: “…someone who is exiled from being at peace within the self.”

    I relate to wretch, someone who is broken. That one word is the power of the song. That one word IS the song. A broken lost soul who was saved by the love and grace of God. Without the word, wretch, it changes the song. We do not get to see how far this man traveled in an instant to being saved, in one miraculous moment. His trade had been a transporter of slaves and during one of his voyages, in the midst of a terrifying violent storm, he had a religious experience and dedicated the rest of his life to God. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Amen and amen.

    Without the description of how low and lost or wretched this man was, it loses the power of the the song, the miracle of his redemption.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Jo Anne,
      Congratulations on keeping the wretch where it belonged! You’re spot-on, the song loses it’s meaning if the lyricists words are played with. To write this piece I did research which included watching YouTube performances and the one with Steven Tyler joining Juliette Hamilton demonstrated the “wretchedness” in his gyrations–excellent version for an Aerosmith fan! John Newton had an immediate transformation but continued in questionable practices and didn’t write the lyrics until years later. Like all of us he was a work in progress.
      Amazing Grace how sweet the sound–especially when “laced” with divine patience!
      Thanks for reading and commenting,
      Roger

      Reply
  5. Bud Carney

    Roger, what a great post. You hit on my most favorite hymn. You know me and my analytical mind, but “Amazing Grace” really gets to me at a level which truly surprises me.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Bud,
      Thank you for reading, commenting, and admitting to being part of the centuries old group for whom “Amazing Grace really gets to me.” You and I are in fine company.
      Roger

      Reply
  6. yourrel4 (Post author)

    A friend wrote to remind me that President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace, and asked if that counted as a “cover,” of course I replied–so he’s added to the list–among many others I didn’t mention. Amazing how many of us, regardless of who we are, where we come from, what we’ve done, skin color and beliefs, political biases and ideologies, gender and age–we get the message when we listen–amazing grace.
    Be still and feel grace’s whisper,
    Roger

    Reply
  7. Marge Clark

    Roger, your recollections and reflections are filled with details which bring them to life. “Amazing Grace” at the top of a mountain from bagpipes brings me chills, not from the cold, even though I was not actually there with you. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Marge,
      I’m glad you found something in these words to give “chills.” Recollections and reflections, thoughts and ponderings can be self-serving and narcissistic, which I acknowledge and try my best to resist. The value and pleasure occurs if a “chill” comes to the reader. My writing brings satisfaction in the effort [not always], but that pleasure pales compared to the joy of knowing you were there with me, through the words, “at the top of a mountain.” Great having you along, and thank you!
      Roger

      Reply
  8. Colette

    Your serendipitous encounter with the bagpiper playing Amazing Grace atop a mountain was a magical mystical moment.
    The words written by a quintessential wretch, capture so movingly our human condition and contradictions. Matched with the magnificent music it draws most of us into that state of awe and acceptance of our simple sublime state of being merely human. Sung by so many accomplished and well-known artists, it is equally inspiring when sung in church by us lesser-known commoners, even those who more usually “cannot sing,” such as myself. I love the power of this hymn. Thank you for writing and sharing this reminder with us. Write on, mon ami.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Colette,
      Thank you for commenting. Wherever Amazing Grace is sung or played, by accomplished artists or “us” common folk, the words and music seem to transport us to a place beyond our immediate circumstance. It is mysterious, and as you state “a magical mystical moment.” I don’t recall any details of the run down the mountain other than the two of us carving tracks in powder, but I can still hear the piper’s melody and recount the feeling instilled in my soul.
      Roger

      Reply
  9. Mary

    Sixteen years ago tomorrow I was celebrating my birthday at an old inni on the Isle of Skye, Scotland . The inn was remote and charming right down to the hot water bottles waiting at the foot of each bed every night. A fun group of women, nine in all, were canoeing the lochs and rivers for a week. A woman and her two sons ran the inn and mussel farm below. That night st sunset the oldest son dressed in full Scottish regalia emerged from the lower hill playing happy birthday for me. As he stood on a mound after the song and the well wishes, he began to play “Amazing Grace.” It was such a powerful moment that everyone dropped to their knees in tears. “Was blind but now I see.”

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Mary,
      Remote at the top of a mountain, and on the Isle of Skye, but being brought to our “knees” by a piper’s rendition of Amazing Grace, and both in full regalia–Wow. Thank you for commenting with this wonderful anecdote, a scene I can readily see thanks to your words.
      Roger

      Reply
  10. Hayden Carney

    Roger, this is your best yet.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Bud,
      Thank you, but that said my words cannot do justice to the sounds of that piper’s soul-piercing rendition of Amazing Grace.
      Amen,
      Roger

      Reply

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