British music writer Turner (Trouble Man, 2000, etc.) pens an informative biography of the man who wrote “Amazing Grace” and a comprehensive chronicle of the hymn’s journey to cultural iconhood.
Born in 1725 in London, the son of a prosperous sea captain, John Newton had a rebellious nature that in his youth warred with his religious impulses. Press-ganged into the service of the Royal Navy, he deserted, was found, beaten, and returned to the ship, which then set sail for West Africa. There, Newton left the ship to work for a slave trader on Plantain Island. It was a miserable existence: the food was bad, the climate awful, and his employers tough. But Newton as yet had no sympathy for the plight of the slaves themselves; Turner suggests that his guilt about being involved in the slave trade came long after the 1748 storm at sea during which Newton encountered God’s grace, soon to be immortalized in his hymn. Determined to change his life, he left the sea and became a minister. Back in England, he preached, wrote hymns, and became the confidant of such luminaries as Lord Dartmouth (after whom the American college is named); the poet William Cowper; and British abolitionist William Wilberforce. “Amazing Grace” appeared in hymnals during Newton’s life and then made its way to the US, where it became a staple at revival meetings. Turner traces its earliest published American appearance, the origin of the tune that would be associated with it, and its growing audience. He shows the hymn being played by pipe bands at funerals, recorded by musicians as different as Mahalia Jackson and Sinead O’Connor, and sung at a London rock festival to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. He also details the influence of versions by Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Pipe Band.
A sensitive and thoughtful take on a much-loved song.