The Amazing Effect of Amazing Grace
Of all the questions I get asked when piping in public, the one that makes me laugh the most is, “do you know ‘Amazing Grace’?”. Is there any piper who doesn’t know it? Most pipers, if they’ve been playing the instrument for a while, have all played this tune countless times. It’s probably the number one bagpipe tune with the general public. It’s got at least two amazing stories behind it.
The first story is its origin in the hymn written by John Newton. Many know the story this way: John Newton, born in 1725, became the captain of a slave ship. When he faced death in a horrendous storm, he prayed for salvation. His prayers answered, he gave up the slave trade, and penned “Amazing Grace” shortly after.
That’s not quite how it went. When the ship made it to safety, Newton did take it as a sign from God and did embrace Christianity. This embrace was much more gradual and developed even as he continued at the helm of two different slave ships. In 1754, a stroke made him retire. Ten years later, he became an Anglican priest. He’s credited with writing 280 hymns to illustrate his sermons, including “Amazing Grace” in 1772. At least, he wrote the words in 1772, and it was not until 1835 when William Walker put the words to the popular tune “New Britain”.
John Newton did not publicly renounce the slave trade until 1788, but once he did, he worked hard to end it. Shortly before his death in 1807, he saw Great Britain abolish slavery due in part to his efforts.
Fast forward to 1972. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army, was recently formed by joining the 3rd Carabiniers and the Royal Scots Greys. Their pipe and drum corps, first formed in 1946, was working on recording an album of their music. They needed one more tune to complete the collection, when someone mentioned that they had a setting of “Amazing Grace” which had been recorded in 1970 by Judy Collins and had spent some time on the pop music charts. Her version started with a solo voice with a choir joining in; their version started with a solo piper who is joined by the rest of the band.
Although “Amazing Grace” has been recorded more than 7,000 times, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had created something truly unique. The tune climbed the charts, reaching no. 1 in the UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. It reached no. 11 in the US, ultimately selling more than 7 million copies worldwide and becoming the best selling recording of “Amazing Grace”. In the meantime, the Pipe Major was summoned to Edinburgh Castle and chastised for “demeaning the bagpipes”!
This simple tune, one of the first that we learn as pipers, has transformed the station of bagpipers in the past 45 years. It’s frequently cited by prospective students as the reason for their interest in learning the instrument. And it has created instant repertoire for funeral bagpipers and church bagpipers. Rare is the funeral or church service where the tune is not requested or the piper is not heard playing “Amazing Grace” at some point. In the US, it is played by just about every massed bands ceremony at the start of Highland games. It stirs the emotions and it can still bring a tear to my eye. It is indeed “amazing” in the way it has become a bagpiping standard.