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Sound Recordings of "Amazing Grace"

NOTE: This information is reproduced from an article at the Library of Congress

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.

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