A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Dear Scotland on homesickness and used Glen Campbell’s (a Texan with a fine Scottish name) sublime version of Travis’s Sing as the catalyst to my thoughts. I then spent a week rediscovering The Incredible String Band for my last pieces; however I was continually distracted by the idea of doing some articles on Scottish cover versions or on Scottish artists who were not Scots.

So I was halfway through getting my act together on the latter when I read the extremely witty “Are They Really Scottish?” List by Kenny McColl in Dear Scotland. So bang went that idea. Nevertheless I would like to add that Stuart Adamson born 11 April 1958, in Birmingham of all places, is 100% Scot, a mental Dunfermline fan and sadly missed, (I will tell my Stuart Adamson / Joe Walsh story on another day).

Hounded by our glorious Ed., The Dear, to produce something, I went back to the covers idea and waded in. Many friends on Facebook suggested their own favourites and I discovered a few gems along the way, not least the cover of King Creosote’s  Leslie by The Lonely Tourist, a side project of the Odeon Beat Club

Unfortunately I only got as far as Willie Nelson’s Amazing Grace, (a song so good he recorded it twice)  and my world went on hold. “WTF!” Ok I hate text speak – “It’s not Scottish? What the f*ck? The most famous Scottish song in the world next to Auld Lang Syne, Amazing Grace, as recorded by the fall in, stand to attention, fall out, right turn, three paces and head to the bar for Pimms and whisky Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, is not Scottish?”, “Get tae feck!”. You’ll be telling me Lloyd Cole and Rod Stewart are not Scottish next!

ADD kicking in I went off in search of Amazing Grace and was distracted into oblivion by some really cool stuff and some even cooler versions.

Seems that the lyrics to the song were penned by a cheery cockney chappie called John Newton, who was born in Wapping in 1725, so I doubt he will be able to claim the royalties from The Scots Dragoon Guards who knocked “Without You” by Nilsson off the number 1 spot for 5 weeks in April 1972, or the countless other people who have covered it, (note: T Rex – Metal Guru was the song that displaced it).

Newton was a fascinating character, he went to sea with his slave trading father at 11, got captured and was press ganged into the Navy, went AWOL, got caught, got flogged, was sent into exile as a traitor, became the servant of the merchant’s wife, an African duchess called Princess Peye in Sierra Leone, who abused him along with her other slaves, got left a ton of dosh by his dad, bribed a ship’s captain to return him to England to collect the dosh, became a slave ship captain, found god in a tempest at sea, became an Anglican priest, became an accomplished scholar learning Greek and Hebrew, then a writer, then as an ex-slave captain he was pivotal in renouncing slavery along with William Wilberforce. More importantly, inspired by John 9:25 “I was blind but now I see”, he wrote one of the best known songs in the world. Some man our Newton, more the pity he was not Scots.

Amazing Grace is simply an amazing song. So amazing it was sung at the funeral of US President Ronald Reagan and in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, (Mr. Scott plays ‘Amazing Grace’ on the bagpipes during the funeral of Spock). If you go to Wikipedia you will find a list of artists as long as Robbie Coltrane’s sporran chain, and on my iPod I have gathered some 22 versions without ever overtly professing to having any love for the song.

The most striking thing of both lists is the diversity of artists and genres covered. Long before Obama, the cultural divide was bridged by this song and there are versions from Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Joan Baez, umpteen Pipe bands, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Paul Simon, Kylie, Stevie Via, Cash, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, Sarah Brightman, Emmy Lou Harris, Gerry Garcia, Boys to Men, Judy Collins, Il Divo, Japan’s Minako Honda and a few kick arse punk renderings by Quincy, Massachusetts’s The Dropkick Murphy’s and LA’s Flogging Molly etc etc etc

The history of the lyrics taken from a sermon by the aforementioned John Newton is well documented, but he was not a musician. So where did the melody come from and how did Amazing Grace become intrinsically linked with Scotland? I am not professing to have spent hours and weeks historically researching this but a number of plausible things outwith The Dragoon Guards may have combined to contribute to the songs place in the Scottish cannon.

A staple of the folk scene for years the song was little known until 1969 when it appeared in Arthur Penn’s film Alice’s Restaurant in which Lee Hays of The Weavers rouses the worshipers to sing Amazing Grace. There are romantic notions that Newton set his words to the melody of a song he heard slaves singing, which is more plausible after listening to Lady Black Mambazo’s rendition. Given it is written with the Pentatonic Scale it is more likely that its origins can be traced back to traditional Scots folk music or the bagpipes though perhaps the origins are more Appalachian Mountains than Trossachs. Either way, it is very doubtful that Newton ever heard his hymn being sung with the current melody.

I once had the pleasure of watching Joe Walsh of The Eagles perform Amazing Grace solo at the Barrowland Ballroom and as he hit his last note, and without his knowledge, I had arranged for a Pipe Band to burst into a full-on blood and haggis version at the back of the hall, a memory Joe says he fondly takes with him. History apart, the song has for whatever reason become synonymous with Scotland and I’m saying that it’s as Scottish as blood and haggis!

Alec

Next week: Alec promises to deliver the definitive list of Scottish cover versions. Suggestions welcome.

Comments

  1. I once bumped into Rick Wakeman on the Staten Island ferry and he said that he was going around the world filming a documentary trying to find the origins of Amazing Grace. I told him it was Scottish and that was that, but he wasn’t having it. Didnt think about it until I read this nice article.
    I found the documentary here but I havnt watched it so I dont know what his conclusion was: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XejlgJeiv6c

  2. A very dry funny grumpy old man Rick, thanks for the link, I just need to shovel some coal in to my Turkish Internet connection then find a proxy to bypass the Turkish ban on youtube but what else is an old boy to do when it is 100 + outside

  3. crazy in a way that the words could be anything yet the composition of the music couldnt be..

    i dont think the lyrics matter to what is a truly magical piece of scottish music.

  4. It would seem the original composer for the tune of Robert Burn’s Auld Lang Syne is unknown? According to the wikipedia, english composer William Shield arguably quotes the melody at the end of his overture to his opera Rosina, which may be its first recorded use. Some believe the melody may have been borrowed from him, or from other related english composers. Nevertheless, due to the link with the Scots Guards and being almost always output in bagpipe form, it is regarded as being Scottish.

    Another Nimoy connection – Amazing Grace is also played near the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21bsYR2yoEo

  5. Ive always thought scots and irish celtic folk church hymns with a minister taking the lead before the audience joins in, where words are drawn out in gaelic, similar to southern american lined hymns. I wonder how much of a true link there is in that respect. I wonder what the oldest generation of celts would think if a link was proven. Same religion after all, and music evolves over time and distance.

    Newtons slippery past in relation to slave trade makes the history more intriging. I always thought Amazing Grace was a very blues track in nature. The music could be penned with just about any lyrics and still stand out. I doubt we will ever find out the truth in its musical origin. The only track next to Auld Lang Syne that I can listen to via the bagpipes 🙂

  6. Rather odd that nobody here mentions the melody’s origin is at least partly known. The melody appears in written form in the eastern US in the 1820’s under the title “New Britain”. However, because the writer is unknown, and because the song adapts to bagpipe so well, at least some people suspect the writer was a Scottish immigrant.