Saturday, June 5, 2010

When I Sit Down Late At Night

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
We have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

I must preface this with a caveat. This blog is titled "The American Songbook" but, the subject matter is not American.

Through the recordings of Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and others, "Amazing Grace" has been considered by some an Appalachian folk song. Not true. It is English in origin. However, it is perhaps one of the most recorded of all songs by American performers. With that in mind, I begin.

All of us hit that spot when the world has just become too much to bear. Thankfully, it is usually a passing phase in the events that wash over us as the days tick by. This is not meant as a... "poor me". It's just a fact we all face.

Sometimes, it is the events of the day itself that burdens us.

A missed call.

A harsh word from someone who matters in our life.

A bill we forgot or neglected to pay. Or several bills, piling up behind the dam we've built of our denials or lack of funds. Or both.

Sometimes, it comes to those who face a day without work....nor even the possibility of acquiring a job that would satisfy them, and, though that may sound selfish, it is important,......and the loneliness of a silent house when all who live there have scampered off to their daily tasks.

Often it is the tv or newspaper or radio; blaring forth the ignoble and horrifying things one human does to another. Or many others. A wrong choice. Or even a planned evil.

It could become fear in a few moments.

If you play an instrument or love the sound of music; this is when you seek refuge.

I ask you. What is the song that gives you hope?

To me, "Amazing Grace"; strummed without a pick in the soft, dark oasis of my kitchen, with a light from the stove and a small lamp glowing from the living room like pools of dim water; this becomes my anchor in a sea of depression.

A song written by an eighteenth century slave trader when faced with a moment of truth, John Newton did not change is profane ways immediately. He was known as a writer of exceedingly obscene and totally improper words put to popular sailors tunes. He had turned his back on religion as a young man, and became immersed in all the debauchery life presented.

While aboard a ship, The Greyhound, in March of 1743, a violent storm put the entire crew at risk. Newton was manning a pump furiously, and stepped away for a moment. When he returned, the man who took his place was gone. Washed overboard.

It was later reported that at this point he yelled to the captain, his voice straining to be heard above the lashing winds and driving rain. "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on our souls!"

The Lord apparently heard and the ship road out the storm without another loss of life.

Newton pondered what he had said and then, in a moment akin to what Paul must have felt when knocked off a horse on his way to Damascus, he made a decision.

He was a slaver. He continued in this profession for several more years.

Soon, however, he left the sea and settled in Liverpool as a custom agent. He studied Greek and Latin and poured over the many books available to a man who wished to become a preacher. And a preacher he did become, ordained in "The Church of England" in 1764 where he became a curate in Olney, in Buckinghamshire.

He, along with poet William Cowper, began writing hymns; the most famous being....."Amazing Grace." It is the most recognizable song in the English language. Perhaps in the entire world.

Bagpipers squeeze and poke the melody from their chanters. The famous and infamous have sung it, from Judy Collins to Johnny Cash. From "The Lemonheads" to Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis, "The Byrds" and everything in between.

Sometimes, I don't even sing the words. I just strum the chords. And everytime. The clock ticks back into place. The world seems a little bit saner.

If you're a performer, you have probably waited for the applause to subside after a song you have done. Even if there are only a half dozen people left in the audience. And, if you're like me, when there is nothing left to do, you have begun to sing "Amazing Grace" a'capella, because, at that moment, it feels right. It becomes the most beautiful thing in the world, not from anything you have done.


It is not your skill or lack thereof that creates this breathtaking moment.

It is the soul of the song. And each and every time I have done this, without fail and no matter what the venue; in church... in a club... in a bar... at a school....or wherever, everyone knows the song, at least the first verse. And it is always sung with a spirituality I have never found in other songs.

Oh, I don't play it all the time. Sometimes a three chord, 12 bar blues; played as slowly as possible, is what rolls out in those dark, desperate hours. And I just moan, sort of like Satchmo did in "West End Blues". A quiet kind of song with no words.


But, mostly its "Amazing Grace".

© 2010 George Locke

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