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.