Good morning, and welcome to our first Single Song Sunday, an occasional feature here on Cover Lay Down in which we consider several folkversions of just one song. And what better way to initiate an occasional Sunday series than to begin with not one but five great folk covers of church hymn and spiritual Amazing Grace?
One of the things that makes the hymnal an interesting source for folkmusicians and audience alike is the way the traditionally full-bodied plainsong harmonies and oft-included church organ give way to the sparse plucked-string instrumentation and more gentle, albeit more secular and impure, vocalization of the folk musician, bringing a sense of daily toil and heartache to what can otherwise seems like just another Sunday morning stand-up between platepassing and sermon.
Which is to say: once in a wonderful while the folk tradition turns to the hymnal, and not just because that's where you find the songs everyone knows.
But to best appreciate the case of today's featured song, the Christian hymn Amazing Grace (originally known as New Britain; lyrics written by John Newton, who is pictured above), we must remember that most Americans first hear this song as a gospel tune. For many, it was the transitional gospel that first bent the tune beyond the straightness of the pew, pointing the way toward the kind of secularized, humanized ownership of song which marks the folk tradition.
That many of the best folk versions of Amazing Grace seem more grounded in the gospel than the church itself is no surprise; after all, here's a rare beast that is easy to sing at first glance, and is both lyrically and musically simple and elegant enough for a multitude of meanings and methodological approaches. And despite origins in different communities, folk and gospel go way, way back: both traditions share a sense of songs as communally owned, and both celebrate intent and interpretation over note-for-note perfection.
To further explore this curious drift from church to coffeehouse, today, we feature a set of five folk interpretations of this well-covered spiritual: the high-produced uptempo stomp of Laura Love's cover, the simple, plaintive pluck of Sufjan Stevens' banjo, the crossing a capella harmonies of folksisters Chris and Meredith Thompson, Mark O'Connor's nearly-classical fiddle, and lo, even Barbara Cohen's twangy, almost alt-country steelstring-and-singer heartache.
Our list is by no means a complete one, but in its breadth, the potential of the hymn as folksong, the clear folk connection between the heard and the played, and the very diversity of the folk genre itself shine through like a light unto the lord.
Let there be light:
- Mark O'Connor, Amazing Grace
(from Midnight on the Water)
- Laura Love, Amazing Grace
- Chris and Merideth Thompson, Amazing Grace
(live at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival 2006; unavailable)
- Sufjan Stevens, Amazing Grace
(from Hark! Songs for Christmas Vol. 1)
- Barbara Cohen, Amazing Grace
As always, all purchase links go to the artist's preferred source. Can I get an amen?