Friday, February 12, 2010

Black History Month: John Henry Newton, Part V

I gave a presentation at my church where I portrayed John Henry Newton, the slave ship captain turned Anglican priest and abolitionist who wrote Amazing Grace. Here is Part 4.

No one is really sure of the origins of this tune. Some believe it is of Scottish heritage. Given my background in slave trading, though, I like to think that this tune came to the US on the slave ships and was hummed in the cotton fields until someone caught wind of it decided to publish it.

Wikipedia notes that the text and tune for Amazing Grace has become “Emblematic of the African-American Spiritual.” Emblematic. An emblem is a symbol that represents something. The tiger is an emblem of St. Paul School. The cross is an emblem of Jesus’ suffering and death. Amazing Grace is an emblem of the African-American Spiritual.

It seems my little song lived on well past my life and has been embraced across cultural boundaries and continents. When people here it, it calls to mind the great spirituals of the past. And great gospel singers since then have placed their own twist on it. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston are just a few.

Gospel singer Wintley Phipps says the tune was written on the “slave scale.” The slave scale is the five-note scale that is comprised of the black keys on the piano. He notes that it is reminiscent of a West African sorrow chant. This gels with my theory that the slaves may have sung the tune in the cotton fields. Wintley notes that any credible source lists me as the author of the text, but “Unknown” is always listed next to the tune. He says, “I tell the Lord that when I get to heaven, I want to meet Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but boy I sure want to meet that slave called Unknown.”

We are going to sing my song with its familiar tune later in the service. When we do, remember how the Holy Spirit drew me to repentance over my days in the slave trade industry and how a little tune that may have West African roots has inspired generations and cultures throughout the world. It brings new meaning to the verse,

When we’ve been there 10,000 years,
bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

Thank you and God bless.

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