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.

41 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.

  7. Nancy Lydia Duncan says:

    Everyone can speculate all they want, myself included, until we all go “safely home”, but I believe this to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth until then…only GOD knows the real truth behind His divine appointment with John Newton and the beautiful lyrics AND the “music” behind the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace”.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      No, I am sorry but no speculation needed. One person’s emotional guess is not equivalent to another’s informed research. Truth may be elusive in a lot of areas of life but there are things that are clear. We don’t need to debate 2+2=4 and we don’t need to speculate or debate this either. The reason we are debating it is because some people refuse to accept the truth that they don’t like.

  8. Stany says:

    Pointless article…Phil’s point was that the melody comes from West Africa, he didn’t mention J. Newton created the melody, just words. The slave who created the melody was forgotten by history. What is strange about that? Slaves did a lot of great things that are never mentioned in books. Eg: freedom fighters like Salem Poor, etc. So I respectefully think your article has proven nothing to show Phil’s claim is untrue as stated in the first paragraphs

    • Greg Howlett says:

      What you have done is prove yourself apparently incapable of rational thought. No slave wrote the melody to Newton’s hymn. The truth matters. Go study.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Oh you must have missed where the history of the tune was provided. Go read it again. Question for you Stany… Why is this so important to you? Why do you keep coming here spewing your silliness? I am anti-slavery. I agree that many slaves were heroes. I like African music. I just happen to like truth too. That is where we differ apparently.

      • Stany says:

        It is important to me because truth matters to me and I feel concerned when bloggers like you simply choose to criticize someone without any facts. Books say “Words by J Newton, melody, unknown” This guy gave us a hypothesis that Newton being a former slave ship captain, has probably heard this tune from slaves. And he supports his argument by stating the fact some west African melodies are near Amazing grace. You refute everything but proves nothing. How do you call that the truth?

        • Greg Howlett says:

          Ah good. So the truth matters to you. Here is truth. Phipps story is incorrect. Newton did not hear the tune of AG from slaves singing it. Newton did not EVER hear the tune we sing today paired with his lyrics. There is not a shred of evidence that ANY slave ever wrote the tune. The tune is attributed to other people (probably Appalachian).

          Glad to help drop some truth on you. If you disagree with anything I just wrote, you either have no clue what you are talking about or are being willfully ignorant and don’t care about truth as much as you claim.

          Also, I will help you with some music theory stuff. The tune is pentatonic. So what? There have been numerous cultures that have used the exact same scale, including many cultures here in the US and in Europe. Means absolutely nothing if you are trying to prove the tune came from Africa. That also is truth. You can like it or not but it is truth.

  9. Stany says:

    In that case, you should be able to prove who created it. At least Phil mentions the melody sounds like many known West African melodies which is enough to take his narrative as a hypothesis. Just refuting the HYPOTHESIS of a slave creating the melody adds nothing to the search of truth. You are doing what almost every historian has been doing over the past centuries.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Got news for you Stany. I get that you are under the delusion that if you want something to be true, it is true. Sort of like “When you wish upon a star.” You are sadly mistaken. What you want to believe has nothing to do with what is true. Sorry but that is the way it is. You will enjoy life more if you can understand this.

  10. Jake says:

    Greg, maybe we saw different clips of Pipps’ presentation. He did not say that Newton paired the tune to the words of “Amazing Grace.” He said, “many believed that Newton heard” the tune/melody/chant. He did not present it as an historically based fact. Your criticism on that point is not well-founded. You did, however, correctly point out the factual inaccuracy of the referenced beliefs.
    I took Pipps’ hyperbolic expressions as part a spiritually- cultivating story, in the form of a one-person cantata.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Oh it is a nice story. It is just fiction. He implied that Newton heard the tune from slaves. Which is 100% nonsense. But it is a nice story…

  11. Greg Howlett says:

    To all: You may have noticed I am not exhibiting much patience with many that are commenting here. These people are not my normal readers. They are here only to try to argue for a fictional version of history that aligns with what they want it to be. It is postmodernism at its worst. I have no respect for it and I am not going to put up with it here. What I wrote above is factually indisputable. People can choose not to accept truth but that just makes them wrong. They have the right to be wrong but if they post their nonsense here, I am going to call it nonsense.

  12. Stany says:

    Well said. We are NOT your normal readers, we are your critical readers. We are not here to just try to argue, we are here to tell writers like you that there history has more than what is recorded in library books. If you really are as factual as you claim, you should take a moment to reflect on that.
    Thanks
    Stany

    • Greg Howlett says:

      I am still waiting for you to make a coherent argument against any of my points. Pick one and let’s see what you got…

      1) Newton did not write the music for AG and never heard AG with the tune it is sung with today. That completely invalidates Phipp’s entire hypothesis.
      2) Furthermore, there is not a shred of evidence that a slave wrote the tune New Britain. None. In fact, history suggests other authors.
      3) The fact that the tune is pentatonic is a complete smokescreen. It does not even a little suggest that the tune comes from Africa.

      Go for it Stany. You call yourself a critical thinker. Make your best case against any of these points. If you can’t, go away… I am not interested in your stupid theories when you have zero evidence to support them. You just want to believe the absurd because it will make you feel better. There is a place for that kind of postmodernism. It is just not here on my blog. I despise that.

      • Stany says:

        1. Newton wrote the words for Amazing Grace. Phil never said Newton wrote the music, just words. Phil’s claim is that these words “Amazing grace” which were written by a former slave ship captain were most probably heard from a slave. Why is this a valid hypothesis? Those words reveal some of the most important information to support it. Take for example words such as “chains”, “fear”, “endure”, “shield”, etc. if you know what I am talking about, you should agree that claiming that J. Newton was inspired by a slave experience is undeniable.

        2. History is the problem here (I mean history as recorded in our library books). Phil uses the above hypothesis and the fact that Amazing grace is similar to what he calls “Negro spirituals” (written with “black notes”). He compares Amazing Grace to other “Negro spirituals” and further states it is a white spiritual written in a “Negro spiritual” style. All of these are hypotheses of course but that’s what research is. It is about building hypotheses, you don’t refute hypotheses unless you have facts (which you don’t have).

        3. Again, you are refuting his suggestions without giving any facts. He suggests this tune sounds like a West African solo chant, which is an interesting fact (at least to me). These details are all hypotheses as I mentioned, you don’t refute them unless you have something tangible against them. Do you refuse that it doesn’t sound like a West African solo chant as he claims? Why? Go to library and you will still read “Words: J. Newton” Melody “Unknown.”
        4. Note that I am in no way trying to create confrontation here (as you seem to do). Neither am I trying to say Phil’s claim is true. What I am saying is your article is pointless because it adds nothing to the knowledge we had of this Amazing Grace tune
        5. Hope the above gets you some culture.
        Stany

        • Greg Howlett says:

          If you choose to actually address any of my three points, I will engage with you even though it is almost certainly a waste of time. Again, pick one of them and if you can debate it, present your evidence. Why don’t we start with #1. Do you concede that what I said is true or not?

          Contrary to what you want me to do, I am not interested in debating you on your silly conspiracy theory hypotheses. That would put me on your turf and I am not interested in being on your turf. Just like if an idiot flat-earther wanted to me to prove him wrong, I would not even bother. Some things are so absurd and have so little evidence that they are a waste of time to engage in. In your case, I am not going to even waste a keystroke on your hypotheses about slaves writing NEW BRITAIN unless you can come up with a shred of evidence to support it.

  13. Barbara Clinansmith says:

    I recently heard Mr Phipps’ performance of how Amazing Grace might have come about on the Gaither Gospel hour recording of God Bless the USA. If it is true that the two songs that became known as New Britain were sung in bars then it could have been that the slaves on those ships heard the crew members singing them. With the heartbreak and suffering they were going through the tune may have been comforting to them. As Mr Phipps starts the tune as it might have been heard you could feel the pain of those unfortunate people which gave me more empathy and love for the African American people. Add to that the poem written by a guilty slave trader who had received God’s forgiveness and peace and other’s adding verses over the years and we have a hymn with a beautiful, timeless message in a recognizable tune. Wintley Phipps sang Amazing Grace beautifully with more emotion and devotion to God than I have ever heard it sung before. Not everything in history has been recorded and this could have been a part of how Amazing Grace as we know it today came about.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      It is true that your theory MAY have happened. It is also true that there may be men on Mars and pigs can speak Latin. Phipps is a great singer and it is a compelling story. It is just not a true story regardless of how much people want for it to be true.

  14. Cindra says:

    Just a few observations:
    The slaves that were captured and traded by other tribes, were they saved when they were thrown into the hull of the ship? Otherwise, what grace would they be singing about?

    Did they sing Amazing Grace in English or their native tongue when Newton supposedly overheard them?

    Mr. Howlett pointed out that the tune was added decades after Newton penned the words to AG, which was written 20 years after Newton stopped sailing.

    And perhaps the most UNRELIABLE suggestion by a previous commenter who said
    “Take for example words such as “chains”, “fear”, “endure”, “shield”, etc. if you know what I am talking about, you should agree that claiming that J. Newton was inspired by a slave experience is undeniable.”
    Are you really suggesting that only enslaved black people can feel those things?

    Using that logic, then the lyrics are “undeniably” Newton’s. In the 1st stanza he says “a wretch like me”. Can a slave be a wretch or does that more precisely describe a slave trader?
    “I was lost, but now I’m found”; not slave terminology.
    “Many dangers, toils and snares”; again sounds more like a sailor.
    How about “The Lord has promised good to me”? Sounds more like a free white man, than a black man sitting in a dark, diseased hull of a slave ship.

    Great stories are great when they are true, otherwise they are just lies. And the worst kind of lie is mixing a little truth with a little untruth.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      This whole post and responses takes the cake. It is a depressing look at humanity and Christianity. Postmodernism is alive and well for sure. People don’t care about facts; they are going to believe what they want to believe.

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