Grace>Sound Recordings of Amazing Grace
Sound Recordings of "Amazing Grace"
NOTE: This information is reproduced from an article at the Library
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"
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,
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
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
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
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
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