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Lonely Traveller

Religious Songs

Other roots standards that became a permanent part of the national consciousness were a handful of religious songs. Though every organized church has its own official hymnal and favored songs, these songs have transcended race, geography, creed and age. Some have become as widely known and sung as our great patriotic songs.

The best known of these is Amazing Grace, a song so widespread and historically important that PBS's Bill Moyers once devoted a full hour documentary on it alone. The words to it were penned by a London man named John Newton (1725-1807), a young sailor who followed his seagoing father and served in the Royal Navy. However, he soon became involved in working on ships that transported slaves to the New World, an experience that would haunt him in later years. In 1748, after his ship almost went down in a storm, he experienced a religious conversion; he soon left the sea, and by 1758 had decided to become a preacher around Liverpool. By 1780 his reputation had grown to where he was named vicar of a major church in London. He also began to write hymns - some 280 of them - and in a book in 1779 published the first stanzas of what would become "Amazing Grace" under the title "Faith's Review and Expectation." It was well-received, and by 1789 had made its first appearance in print in America.

These early versions of the hymn, though, did not use the melody familiar to everyone today. That melody was common in early America under the name "New Britain" or sometimes titles like "Harmony Grove" and, oddly, "Amazing Grace." The authorship of the melody is lost to history, but we do know that the adapting of Newton's text to the "New Britain" melody occurred in 1855; a colorful song leader and evangelist named William Walker ("Singing Billy") put it in his widely used songbook Southern Harmony. From there it quickly became a part of hundreds of church repertoires.

The song got into an even broader range of popular culture when it became a favorite of the folk revival movement in the 1960s. It appeared in the popular film Alice's Restaurant and as a hit single by folksinger Judy Collins. Then, in 1972, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards made a recording of it featuring bagpipes, and it became a surprise hit, both in England and the United States. The recording helped establish a tradition of pipers playing it at political or military funerals, and at the services for policeman killed in the line of duty. The song was heard often at memorials for victims in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

STEAL AWAY is another religious song that has acquired many valences. In a narrow sense, it is important because it was traditionally the first spiritual sung in public by the young Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871. The group had been singing formal European choir music when, at a church convention in Ohio, their director urged them to sing one of the old slave songs they had heard their fathers and mothers sing. The result was an introduction of black folk music to the American public. But far before then, "Steal Away" was being used for quite another purpose: as a code song urging slaves to run away to the North on the Underground Railroad.

     Steal away, steal away home,
     I ain't got long to stay here.

Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Virginia, used the song to summon his followers to secret meetings, and some feel he might have actually written the song in about 1825.

Take My Hand, Precious Lord came from the pen of the father of modern gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey. A native of Georgia, Dorsey had become part of the huge black migration into the northern cities in the 20s, and he landed in Chicago, where his piano-playing and song-writing skills won him a reputation as "Georgia Tom." In 1928 he had a nationwide hit with an off-color song called "It's Tight Like That." Though he had reservations about writing such songs, he could make a living for his family with them, and soon was writing and recording other pieces under the name The Hokum Boys. Then the stock market crashed, and the bank where Dorsey had kept all his royalties failed. On the heels of that came his own bout with poor health, and then the death of his wife and young child. In despair, he decided to turn to gospel music, and as he was trying to sleep one night, the words to "Precious Lord" came to him all at once. He soon recorded it, but it was his sheet music and the performances by friends like Mahalia Jackson that established the song with the public.

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