How Sweet The Sound

Who is being depicted in this film?

Many different types of people from all ages and backgrounds are represented in this film. There are older adults from the rural south that are interviewed. What I liked about this was there were white people that were interviewed, as well as African Americans. There were choir boys from Harlem that were represented. Additionally, Christians and non-Christians had some level of impact from “Amazing Grace.” There were even prisoners who were familiar with “Amazing Grace,” and the song influenced them in their lives.

What does the music sound like?

The music sounded different in each group that was represented in the film. Obviously the song is sung throughout the entire film, and in many different ways. I have listed several distinct versions that I found interesting:

  • Jean Ritchey, a folk singer, plays “Amazing Grace” on a plucked instrument that sounds a lot like a guitar on the front porch of a house. There are no words sung.
  • In the very beginning, the song is sung in a very soulful and passionate way. There are also jazzy cyncopated improvisations i nthe piano accompaniment. The dissonances in the piano give it even more character.
  • It also can sound very operatic. Jessye Norman sings the song using a lot of vibrato, and she is singing it a cappella. She stretches the notes a lot and takes her time in emphasizing certain words and cadences. There is not a strict sense of rhythm or time.
  • Dewey Smith’s family in Ozark, Alabama sings the song in a call-and-response manner while they make dinner together. There is a main soloist, and the group responds to her immediately after she sings a small phrase. They also change up the original lyrics a little bit.
  • Johnny Cash sings “Amazing Grace” by putting his own country twist on it. He lightly strums and plucks his acoustic guitar, and he bends certain pitches with his voice as well.
  • There is a gospel choir that sings “Amazing Grace,” and there are drums and a piano accompanying them. It is very upbeat, and there is a consistent pulse provided by the drums. There is a main soloist and a choir that serves as background singers. It sounds like a healthy mix between a church choir and a rock concert.
  • Finally, there is a beautiful soulful version that sounds a lot like black gospel. The woman who sings it inserts a lot of improvisations in the melody and also through the words she sings. She growls a lot of notes and uses some spoken words for emphasis as well.

Where is this music performed (both geographic location as well as venue)?

In the video, “Amazing Grace” is performed in the following locations:

  • Churches and Cathedrals
  • Viper, Kentucky by a small group singing on their house porch
  • In a grand cathedral in England, complete with an organ
  • Holly Springs, Georgia at a SUnday Sing
  • Ozark, Alabama for Dewey Smith’s 91st birthday
  • New York City by a boys’ choir
  • Rock Concerts
  • Huntsville Prison in Texas

How has the music culture changed over time?

“Amazing Grace” first started out as a sacred song, performed mainly in church and Christian settings. Although it is still a very sacred song, it is now widely sung in many different settings (as seen above). It seems as if every population can relate to this song in a certain way, and people respond to the words and the melody by adding in their own stylistic element. Now, it is sung while doing daily tasks (such as cooking dinner), or as a form of worship in a church setting, or alone and for personal use.

What stood out to you personally in the film?

What is interesting to me is that there are thousands of different versions of this same song, but it has the same meaning no matter what. I am not sure how popular “Amazing Grace” is on a universal level, but it seems pretty obvious that this song is well-esteemed in most English speaking populations. People can listen or sing along to a version of this song that “speaks” to them, and it can immediately take them back to a personal time in their life. I love when the video mentions that the song is not sad — it’s reverent. And people get the most out of reverent songs, because it allows them to think, feel things, and reflect.

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