Amazing Grace notes

Following on my posting on the “Amazing Grace” text with the tune New Britain, a few ornamental notes (Amazing Grace notes, to use a phrasal overlap portmanteau): on antipathy towards the hymn; on the pentatonic scale; and on outrageous play on the text title.

1. Antipathy. Several commenters on Facebook confessed their dislike of the song. It’s pretty much inevitable that a song that’s beloved by many and very frequently performed will have its detractors, and it’s always possible to find reasons for antipathy, towards the tune (so simple) or the text (so emotional).

Some shapenote singers are less than enthusiastic about the song. It’s the one song in the Sacred Harp that’s familiar to almost everyone — other songs have familiar texts but unfamiliar tunes, or vice versa — though a few other songs (like Old Hundred #49t and Coronation #63) are familiar to people experienced with Protestant hymnody. Still, we get to sing New Britain an awful lot.

2. Pentatonics. The major pentatonic scale is a 5-note scale: the 7 notes of the major scale, minus the 4th and the 7th. That gives an easy-to-sing melody line, but harmony is another matter. The 7th is a good thing to have to harmonize with the 5th and 2nd (to give a V chord), and the 4th is necessary for a IV chord, as in the common I – IV – V – I chord progression (the 4th fits in with the 6th and 1st), so harmonizations of pentatonic melodies are likely to use one or both of these extra-scale notes.

The Sacred Harp harmonization of New Britain rests on the I and V chords, without the IV, so the 4th note basically isn’t used; it occurs only once, in the treble line, where it serves as a passing tone. But the 7th note is all over the alto line, where it fills out the V chord.

3. Playing on grace. The phrase amazing grace lends itself to language play, and people have taken the challenge, especially for amazing grease. There’s Amazing Grease Records in San Francisco; the Grease Band and its album Amazing Grease; an herbal salve called Amazing Grease; and more.

Then there’s the Amazing Grapes Wine Store. The Amazing Brace tripod for videotaping. The Amazing Trace sewing machine (a tracing embroiderer). Amazing Graze Farms. And probably others.


One Response to “Amazing Grace notes”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Ned Deily on Facebook:

    Another “seasonal” play on grace: at the very end of this video clip of Grace Jones singing “Little Drummer Boy” from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special”, one of the characters says: “Amazing, Grace!”

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