Amazing Grace - Dissemination - "New Britain" Tune

"New Britain" Tune

When originally used in Olney, it is unknown what music, if any, accompanied the verses written by John Newton. Contemporary hymnbooks did not contain music and were simply small books of religious poetry. The first known instance of Newton's lines joined to music was in A Companion to the Countess of Huntingdon's Hymns (London, 1808), where it is set to the tune "Hephzibah" by English composer John Jenkins Husband. 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). Spilman and Shaw, both students at Kentucky's Centre College, compiled their tunebook both for public worship and revivals, to satisfy "the wants of the Church in her triumphal march." 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 that they are possibly of British origin.

"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. It was, according to author Steve Turner, a "marriage made in heaven ... The music behind 'amazing' had a sense of awe to it. The music behind 'grace' sounded graceful. There was a rise at the point of confession, as though the author was stepping out into the open and making a bold declaration, but a corresponding fall when admitting his blindness." 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.

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:

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we first begun.

"Amazing Grace" came to be an emblem of a religious movement and a symbol of the U.S. itself as the country was involved in a great political experiment, attempting to employ democracy as a means of government. Shape note singing communities, with all the members sitting around an open center, each song employing a different director, illustrated this in practice. Simultaneously, the U.S. began to expand westward into previously unexplored territory that was often wilderness. The "dangers, toils, and snares" of Newton's lyrics had both literal and figurative meanings for Americans. This became poignantly true during the most serious test of American cohesion in the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865). "Amazing Grace" set to "New Britain" was included in two hymnals distributed to soldiers and with death so real and imminent, religious services in the military became commonplace. The hymn was translated into other languages as well: while on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as a way of coping with the ongoing tragedy, and a version of the song by Samuel Worcester that had been translated into the Cherokee language became very popular.

Read more about this topic:  Amazing Grace, Dissemination

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