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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Thursday, January 01, 2009.


When it comes to legend and lore mixed with religion in popular culture, there is no story more mythic than “Amazing Grace.” As is usually the case with legends, facts are freely mixed with speculation and passed on as history.


The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” are credited to John Newton, who was born in London in 1725 and served as the captain of a slave ship. The claim is that he wrote the song of praise to God as a result of surviving a tumultuous storm on a return-home journey.

Newton retired from the sea in 1755, he became an evangelical lay minister. In 1764, he was appointed curate of the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire, and was also ordained in the Church of England. Around 1767 the poet William Cowper migrated to the parish and became friends with Newton. They wrote hundreds of new hymns for the weekly religious services and collaborated to produce several editions of Olney Hymns, the first edition of which in 1779 contained over two hundred hymns by Newton.

Scholars speculate that the lyrics for "Amazing Grace" were written sometime in the 1770’s and was originally titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation” whose opening stanza started with the words “amazing grace.”
Newton was not a musical composer and the origin of the melody is unknown. The three most prominent guesses about the music’s origins are 1. West Africa, 2. African-American folk culture and 3. Celtic and/or Scottish culture. The common thread in all three is the use of the pentatonic musical scale, hence both bagpipes and Negro spirituals.

The song was first recorded on Brunswick Records in 1922 and became popular partly as a result of the African-American singing preacher Reverend J. M. Gates. Go here to see a video performance featuring Wintley Phipps giving both a short synopsis of the song’s history and a stirring, melodramatic rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

In 2006 Michael Apted directed a bio-pic on the British anti-slavery movement, focusing on the 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce. Amazing Grace the movie features Albert Finney as John Newton.


The movie also featured African music legend Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano, a famed former slave and African author who was a noted chronicler of slave life an ardent abolitionist who was very influential in the eventually successful British anti-slavery movement. Published in 1789 and a best-seller that went through numerous editions, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is considered a major success both as literature and as political polemic.

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      Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano


As we say in New Orleans, there are “beaucoup” versions of the song. I’ve chosen eighteen versions by seventeen groups or individuals (one singer has two versions). Fitting for a new year, the Amazing Grace Mixtape is an hour, forty minutes long and the most ambitious survey we have produced. Enjoy!




Ernestine DeaneDub For Mama
We open from
Capetown, South Africa with a post-modern version that references apartheid, which was a 20th century version of state-sponsored slavery.


Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Funeral for a Friend
One short verse done
New Orleans funeral dirge style by a leading proponent of modern brass band music. The album is a tribute to Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, an early founding member of the Dirty Dozen.


Mica ParisSoul Classics
An unadorned and initially unassuming reading from London-born, British soul sensation Mica Paris that is profound in its simplicity, perfectly mirroring the reverence of the preceding instrumental. I appreciate Mica’s meditative approach which emphasizes quiet sincerity rather than bombastic melodrama.


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                  Mica Paris


WalelaNaturally Native soundtrack

Walela is Rita Coolidge along with her sister Priscilla Coolidge and Laura Satterfield. Rita arranged the song for this Canadian produced movie from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Trivia note: Rita Coolidge is of Cherokee and Scottish descent. Those are bagpipes you hear in the background and “Amazing Grace” was popular among the sufferers on the Cherokee Trail of Tears.


Klazz Brothers and Edson Cordeiro - Klazz Meets The Voice
This musical quintet notably mixes jazz and classical music. 


Edson Cordeiro, born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1967, is a classical sopranist countertenor (male soprano), and a pop and jazz singer. After his first European tour in 1995, he became a major success in Germany, where he remains a popular performer.


World Saxophone QuartetMoving Right Along

This version of the genre-establishing World Saxophone Quartet features founders David Murray (tenor), Oliver Lake (alto), Hamiet Blueitt (baritone), along with new member Eric Person (alto). Founded in 1976 when Edward Jordan, chair of the Southern University in New Orleans music department invited the four original members (Murray, Lake, Blueitt and Julius Hemphill) to give a series of workshops and performances, the WSQ is the longest lasting ensemble in modern jazz, easily eclipsing the longevity of the iconic Modern Jazz Quartet.


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             World Saxophone Quartet


Soweto Gospel ChoirLive at the Nelson Mandela Theatre
Back in South Africa we have a sound that is both familiar and different in the context of black music, which is generally understood as the musics originally produced by and out of the African diaspora and urban Africa, gospel being one of the major forms. Most of us think of gospel solely as African American without realizing that the same ingredients (Protestant hymals mixed with black-based urban music) also has its own manifestation in
South Africa. This is a fascinating subject in itself but for now the focus is on this extraordinary outpouring from the two-time Grammy winning Soweto Gospel Choir.


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                                   Soweto Gospel Choir


Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music OrchestraNot In Our Name
Bass player Charlie Haden first made his mark holding down the bottom in the famed Ornette Coleman quartet of the early sixties. Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra total repertoire is music associated with struggles for liberation and human rights. LMO is a jazz ensemble with a political purpose, a fabulous mix of aesthetics and politics.


Sister Rosetta TharpeThe Complete Sister Rosetta Tharpe (out of print)

Many of the great musical innovators from the thirties, forties and early fifties are overlooked today because they weren’t part of the television generation that grew up with the fifties and resultantly people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe are virtually invisible to us today but these artists laid down the foundation for modern black music. In addition to her entertainment prowess, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was very much a conscious artist who promoted gospel music all her life. She was born in
Arkansas in 1921 and died in Philadelphia in 1973.


 sister rosetta tharpe 02.jpg
         Sister Rosetta Tharpe


Blind Boys of AlabamaRetrospective

There is nothing “pretty” about the way these brothers throw down the double-halleluja, holy shout. They are beyond possessed. I know somebody is saying: where’s the melody? Well, to paraphrase Mr. Hathaway: it’s in there crying like a baby and moaning like a bloodhound at the new risen moon.


Jesse FullerFrisco Bound

This blues musician and one man band (get a load of his set-up) offers up a version that’s older than the commonly recognized melody. Kind of gives you a flavor of the (possible) African roots of the song.


Mississippi Fred McDowellAmazing Grace

We wrote about this a short while back. Go here to read it.

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                          Mississippi Fred McDowell



Archie Shepp & Horace ParlanGoin’ Home

You’ll notice that a lot of the jazz instrumentals are just as moving as the vocal versions. Hear avant-gardist supremist, saxophonist Archie Shepp come in from the cold and give us a succinct, supple and subtle essay on spiritual longing characterized by warm, Ben Webster-ish low notes and Shepp’s trademark hoarse tenor saxophone preaching. This recording is one of the great achievements in the plethora of Shepp recordings.


Pianist Horace Parlan demonstrates his accompaniment skills in holding up his end of this duo recording. Parlan expertly walks the tightrope of supporting Shepp’s lead voice while keeping the background interesting. As a result of a childhood bout with polio, Parlan’s right hand is partially paralyzed—amazingly he went on to become a major jazz pianist and distinctive stylist.


Aaron NevilleVienna Jazz Fest 2006 (bootleg)

New Orleans in the house again. First we did an instrumental from the Dirty Dozen and now Aaron drops one of his ethereal gifts from the spiritual ionsphere.


Aretha FranklinAmazing Grace
The absolute gold standard of modern gospel recordings—make sure you get the deluxe version that offers all of the two nights of music. Enough said.


BeBe WinansLive And Up Close

There’s a Detroit connection going here, however I do not mean to suggest that BeBe is in the same league as sister Re but his modern contemporary gospel is an attractive take on the old standard.


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                        BeBe Winans


Wycliffe GordonSlidin Home

Another wonderful jazz instrumental. When jazz started, the trombone was one of the main instruments but once bebop hit, the trombone lost favor. Here’s a young cat who is bringing back the bone with a vengeance, especially the use of plunger mutes.


Cassandra WilsonDance to the Drums Again

Easily the most soothing voice in jazz. There is this sensual undercurrent to all of the spiritual overtones, which all mix together into a positively captivating performance that just makes me melt every time I hear it. It’s all those husky low notes that reach down and make your toenails vibrate. Damn! I mean, Heaven! No, what I really mean is life, the great goodness of life celebrated in music. Amazing. The great goodness of life.


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                             Cassandra Wilson


Ernestine DeaneMoment in Capetown (field recording - 2002)

Ernestine opened up the services and she offers a beautiful benediction.



Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.


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