Black keys

From Elizabeth Traugott yesterday, a report on a Santa Clara Chorale Christmas concert, which had two songs that originated in shapenote music, “The Hills Are Bare at Bethlehem” and “Amazing Grace”. But her companion said that “Amazing Grace” came from an African spiritual, and sent on an e-mail message with a video of gospel singer Wintley Phipps at Carnegie Hall, talking about the history of the song, which he said was a white spiritual (with words by John Newton) based on the “slave scale” — the black keys on the piano (that is, the pentatonic scale). Phipps said that the melody “sounds very much like a West African sorrow chant”, and maintained that Newton “set his words to a slave melody”.

The image of the black keys for black people is striking — a nice piece of poetry, but can’t be accurate, since the creators of Negro spirituals didn’t use pianos. The whole story has a kind of poetic truth, but it’s most unlikely as an account of the history of the tune.

First, “The Hills are Bare at Bethlehem”, which is

an arrangement of the shape note hymn “Prospect” from [William] Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835). Appropriate for use during Pentecost, Christmas, or for general worship… (link)

Here’s Prospect from the 1991 Sacred Harp:

As for “Amazing Grace”, here’s the version of the text, set to the tune New Britain, in the 1991 Sacred Harp:

The John Newton text (of 1779) was set to many different tunes. Even the current 1991 Sacred Harp has two different settings.Here’s the alternative Jewett, which breaks out into a shouting song:

Then, according to Wikipedia (which has a detailed and well-researched entry on “Amazing Grace”):

 The greatest influences in the [early] 19th century that propelled “Amazing Grace” to spread across the U.S. and become a staple of religious services in many denominations and regions were the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing communities.

Hymnbooks of the time typically had only the words, and not the tunes. And any C.M. tune will do for singing any C.M. text; for some entertaining pairings, see my postings here, here (note the comment), and here.

Wikipedia again:

Common meter hymns were interchangeable with a variety of tunes; more than twenty musical settings of “Amazing Grace” circulated with varying popularity until 1835 when William Walker assigned Newton’s words to a traditional song named “New Britain”, which was itself an amalgamation of two melodies (“Gallaher” and “St. Mary”) first published in the Columbian Harmony by Charles H. Spilman and Benjamin Shaw (Cincinnati, 1829). … Most of the tunes had been previously published, but “Gallaher” and “St. Mary” had not. As neither tune is attributed, and both show elements of oral transmission, scholars can only speculate on the tune’s origins. These guesses include a Scottish folk ballad as many of the new residents of Kentucky and Tennessee were immigrants from Scotland, or folk songs developed in Virginia, or South Carolina, William Walker’s home state.

“Amazing Grace”, with the words written by Newton and joined with “New Britain”, the melody most currently associated with it, appeared for the first time in Walker’s shape note tunebook Southern Harmony in 1847.  Walker’s collection was enormously popular, selling about 600,000 copies all over the U.S. when the total population was just over 20 million. Another shape note tunebook named The Sacred Harp (1844) by Georgia residents Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King became widely influential and continues to be used. [The latter book is the ancestor of the 1991 Sacred Harp.]

Here’s the Southern Harmony version (with only three parts; the alto part was added later):

The social setting here is very much white; shapenote music is often characterized as “white spirituals” or “white gospel music”.  But the text and tune spread to black settings as well.  Wikipedia:

Another verse was first recorded in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immensely influential 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Three verses were emblematically sung by Tom in his hour of deepest crisis. He sings the sixth and fifth verses in that order, and Stowe included another verse not written by Newton that had been passed down orally in African American communities for at least 50 years. It was originally one of between 50 to 70 verses of a song titled “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” that first appeared in a 1790 book called A Collection of Sacred Ballads.

So there is a black association, but it’s somewhat indirect.

Eventually, of course, the combination of text and tune became a staple of gospel music, both white and black, and spread to the church music of the (white) urban middle class, all over the country (not just in the South).

It’s also true that to many people, music that has its roots in gospel music “sounds black”, that is, sounds like a Negro spiritual.

That’s certainly true of the music written or set by the incredibly prolific gospel composer Fanny J. Crosby (who was definitely white); lots of people find it hard to imagine that, say, “Blessed Assurance” can be anything other than African American in its origin (link). And look at the songs by the (white) gospel composer George D. Elderkin, for instance “Jesus, the Light of the World” (link).

Now, about this “black keys” idea, of a “slave scale”. The scale in question is a pentatonic scale, immensely common in the world’s music:

A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale and minor scale. Pentatonic scales are very common and are found all over the world, including Celtic folk music, Hungarian folk music, West African music, African-American spirituals, Gospel music, American folk music, Jazz, American blues music, rock music, Sami joik singing, children’s song, the music of ancient Greece and the Greek traditional music and songs from Epirus, Northwest Greece, music of Southern Albania, folk songs of peoples of the Middle Volga area (such as the Mari, the Chuvashand Tatars), the tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan, Philippine Kulintang, Native American music, melodies of Korea, Malaysia, Japan, China and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries), the Andean music, the Afro-Caribbean tradition, Polish highlanders from theTatra Mountains, and Western Impressionistic composers such as French composer Claude Debussy. Examples of its use include Chopin’s Etude in G-flat Major, op. 10, no. 5, the “Black Key” etude. Presumably in the major pentatonic. [Add to this list: Scottish bagpipe music.]

The ubiquity of pentatonic scales, specifically anhemitonic (without semitones) modes, can be attributed to the total lack of the most dissonant intervals between any pitches; there are neither any semitones (and therefore also no complementary major sevenths) nor any tritones. This means any pitches of such a scale may be played in any order or combination without clashing. (link)

(A fair number of shapenote songs are pentatonic.)

The black keys on the piano give us a major pentatonic scale beginning on F#: F# G# A# C# D#. New Britain fits there, and the tune of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and much more.

In any case, there’s nothing characteristically black about pentatonic scales. They’ve  been the basis for musical tradition after musical tradition. They’re attractive because they are, in some sense, “simple”.

None of this detracts from the power of the “Amazing Grace” words sung to the tune New Britain, a particularly fine pairing of text and tune.

10 Responses to “Black keys”

  1. Eric Shackle Says:

    Greetings from Sydney, Australia.

    You may like to see another story about Amazing Grace

    Best wishes, Eric (retired Sydney journalist).

  2. Ellen Kozisek Says:

    Eric, that story you link gets it wrong. John Newton did not write the music, only the words.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes indeed, and I don’t see how I could have made that clearer in my posting. I suppose the problem is that people are inclined to think of song X as a single thing, text (words) and tune (music) together. “Amazing Grace” is the name of the text, but people now think of that text as indissolubly linked to the tune New Britain, so we get people talking about writing new words to “Amazing Grace”.

  3. Text+Tune « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Black keys […]

  4. Amazing Grace notes « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on my posting on the “Amazing Grace” text with the tune New Britain, a few ornamental notes (Amazing […]

  5. Come Thou Fount « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Of the five tunes (these four plus Nettleton), Restoration is the only one in a minor key, indeed a pentatonic minor (remember that in this tradition the melody line is in the tenor, the third line […]

  6. Aindrias Hirt Says:

    Wow, That’s the natural scale. You can clearly see it. That’s really old stuff, and not related to the piano at all. See this:

    They used these shepherds’ trumpets for transhumance (we don’t have this in the States (perhaps a bit out west), and it’s dying out in Europe as well). Amazing. Everything written in C is clearly in the overtone/harmonic series. They brought these songs over from Europe. They have transhumance in Africa as well.


    Andy Hirt

  7. Yahya Keita Says:

    The myth of Newton, of redemption after a Christian conversion will die hard but it is good to know that people will speak the truth. However, irrespective of whether or not Newton ever composed a melody for Amazing Grace, or if he ever heard the melody now used, the melody stands out among songs sung in Euro-America–it is quite distinctive–and I realized this as a child not having even heard it–it seemed odd to see Euro americans singing it. That distinctiveness indicates a cultural milieu that was not 100% European–it would be like trying to take the African out of Latin American–from rhumba to tango. It would have been hard for Gershwin to have written “Summertime” or “I loves you Porgy” without the African/Afro American musical presence. So the issue of directly copying a melody for me is a none-issue. Amazing Grace does has an “African sound”–and I am familiar Scottish and Irish folk music but have never confused a song or melody from there with ones from Africa (although, given human beings there have got to be some that would be hard to distinguish and that I have missed).

  8. Willie Harris Says:

    What are the notes of the black keys

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’ve approved this query, but let me add a waspish note about people who ask simple information questions on blogs — when we have rich resources for finding the answers. In this case, it took me about a minute to find this in the Wikipedia entry on “musical keyboard”:

      The twelve notes of the Western musical scale are laid out with the lowest note on the left; The longer keys (for the seven “natural” notes of the C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B) jut forward. Because these keys were traditionally covered in ivory they are often called the white notes or white keys. The keys for the remaining five notes—which are not part of the C major scale—(i.e., C♯/D♭, D♯/E♭, F♯/G♭, G♯/A♭, A♯/B♭) …. are raised and shorter. Because these keys receive less wear, they are often made of black colored wood and called the black notes or black keys. The pattern repeats at the interval of an octave.

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