Amazing Grace: Debunking a myth

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There is a popular Youtube video that features Wintley Phipps talking about “Amazing Grace.”  He discusses how most Negro spirituals can be played on a piano’s black notes.  He then points out that “Amazing Grace” can also be played using just black notes.  Of course, that hymn was written by John Newton, a slave trader. 

Phipps strongly suggests that Newton heard the tune he used for “Amazing Grace” from black slaves.  In fact, he mentions that when the song is printed today, Newton gets credit for the words but the music’s writer is always listed as unknown. He then says that when he gets to heaven, he wants to meet the slave called Unknown.

It is a great, heart-warming story, but unfortunately, it is not true. Newton wrote the words of the hymn as a poem, which was how it was published in 1779.  We have no idea whether he sang it to any particular tune, but we do know that the melody it is currently sung with (New Britain) was not associated with the song until the 1830’s.  Before that time, it was undoubtedly sung to numerous other melodies.

When Phipps discusses the idea of songs being sung with black keys, he is referring to songs that are written using a pentatonic scale.  In terms of the scale we use today, the pentatonic scale is a subset that uses five pitches (1, 2, 3, 5, and 6).  This is the scale that is created when you play the black keys starting on F#.

Pentatonic scales are prevalent in African American music (including music from slavery) but they are common in much folk music from different cultures.  It is certainly possible that the melody of “Amazing Grace” was written by a slave, but that is far from a given.  Even if true, there is almost no chance that Newton ever heard that tune or envisioned his hymn being sung to that tune.

That being said, I enjoyed the Phipps YouTube video and I love songs that use the pentatonic scale.  I use pentatonic scales often in my arrangements.  The runs in “Heaven Came Down” on Portraits of Hope are pentatonic.  I am currently arranging “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” which undoubtedly is a product of American slavery and was written using a pentatonic scale.

A few years ago at my church, someone (a visitor) came up and began quizzing me about pentatonic scales.  His obvious opinion was that because the pentatonic scale is a subset of the common Western seven note scale, music written using pentatonic scales is inferior. 

To that kind of thinking, I have one word: rubbish!  First of all, music of that sort does not really only use five tones; tones are used that do not even fit into the Western chromatic scale.  African American music highly developed the concept of playing and singing between notes (in the cracks).   But secondly, the character of the music is not inferior; it is just different. 

So, while I reluctantly have to point out the error of Phipps, my hat is off to the contributions of American slaves to musical development.

Greg Howlett

15 thoughts on “Amazing Grace: Debunking a myth

  1. Jim Crutcher says:

    What I like about you Greg is that you are actually balanced on these things. I am sick to death of the smug superiority of the high church types like the person you mentioned that was visiting your church. I can only imagine what you wanted to say to him though I am sure you didn’t.

    • John Prepuce says:

      What’s strange is that the visitor said that because the Pentatonic scale is a subset of the major scale (it’s not) it is inferior. By that logic, the Major scale is a subset of the Chromatic scale and therefore inferior. Or Octotonic scale, etc.

      Pentatonic existed independently of the Major scale and it really doesn’t matter the collection of pitch classes you use, what is important is what you create with the notes.

  2. Mark 42 says:

    @Jim Crutcher,
    I saw a pastor make the case that Rock & Roll is evil because it uses notes that are between the “proper” notes which originate in Voodoo rituals thus making it Satanic linked. I love Larry Norman’s song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music”

  3. Bill Giles says:

    I’ve known about the Wintley Phipps clip for some years and certainly enjoy his performance. As far as I know, the clip came from a Bill Gaither performance and is included on the DVD titled “God Bless America”. As to whether Newton had a tune in mind when he wrote the lyrics is something that we will never know, but there is certainly no evidence that he intended to use the tune that we now use. I came across your entry while I was searching for the original lyrics. I know that some lyrics have been added over the years and some that I believed to be originally are most certainly not. I doubt that we can prove anything with respect to the origin of the tune, but too much time had passed from Newton’s writing of the lyrics to the adoption of the modern tune to be able to attribute the tune to Newton or a slave named “Unknown”.

  4. Lois says:

    A number of years ago I found info that the tune probably dates back 300 – 400 years maybe more. In Newton’s time it seems too have been a bar song. Not unusual to do back then. As for melody being 5 note, I believe Bach brought into general acceptance the full octave. Music history is always complicated due to culture and intra-cultural variations.

  5. Wayne says:

    The tune is actually a composite of two previous melodies, Gallaher and St. Mary, which were combined to create the tune “New Britain,” the one now most commonly associated with Amazing Grace (Steve Turner, “Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song,” p. 120-22). Those two tunes were, in turn, British in origin. Pentatonic scale was also common in British folk music.

    One thing to point out, which anyone can do their own research and find the same thing: search Google for any idea that the pentatonic scale was ever referred to the slave scale, and the only results you will turn up are from Wintley Phipps. Do the search at Google Books, which has mostly books in public domain–which naturally contains a lot of older books, where you would consider this to be most evident if it were true–and you will find any mention of it as a “slave scale” to be non-existent. Good job by this author in pointing out the disinformation. After googling and coming up with only Phipps as the source of the idea of a “slave scale,” I think Mr. Howlett was entirely too easy on Mr. Phipps, who I consider to have fabricated that particular point himself. On Mr. Howlett’s part, the grace he offers on that point certainly IS amazing.

    • Janet says:

      I believe that Mr. Phipps coined that term because the pentatonic scale was used in African music as well. So it’s
      not to say that he was entirely off.

      • Greg Howlett says:

        He was in fact entirely off. Logic does matter and truth matters. The fact that African music may have used pentatonic scales is completely irrelevant to his suggestion. The fact remains that Newton wrote a poem, not a song and the tune that we associate with the poem was not married to the poem until many decades after Newton was dead.

        • Christine says:

          @Greg Howlett… you seem so bitter. However, the fact is “Check your points before you publicise them”! Makes me wonder if you are just bitter because this has been said by a black man and in your mind you think nothing factual or true can come from a black person! This is probably about you feeling embarrassed by slave trading being mentioned as an influence to the song!

          • Greg Howlett says:

            That is probably the most ridiculous thing I have heard on this post and there are plenty of ridiculous things that have been said on this post. I am not bitter. I am disgusted that people don’t care about the truth unless it agrees with their view of the world. There is no concept of an open mind to be found among many people. Christine, I will spell it out for you again. The truth is the truth. Regardless of the players in this story, regardless of their color, Phipps is wrong. Period. Sorry to break it to you but regardless of how much you want that to be true, it isn’t.

  6. Svein Tybakken says:

    It might not be the truth and nothing but the thruth, but Phipps is a great storyteller. I loved it. And I appreciate your professional knowledge, but cold facts does not give me goosebumps. Smile and give glory to the Amazing Grace.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      You can’t disagree with facts. Facts are facts. And the link you sent is talking the words, not the tune. We already know that Newton wrote the words as a slave trader. We also know that it was a poem, not a song at that time.

      • John Prepuce says:

        Greg,
        I know it is difficult to argue with people who will not except objective truth. Some guy above my comment even said that cold hard facts don’t give him goosebumps. Really? wow. Anyway, thanks for the information about this great melody.

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