Amazing Grace

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It’s one of the most popular and beloved songs in the English language. Transcending race, creed, geography, generation, and social station, Amazing Grace has been recorded more times than any other hymn and is widely credited with transforming lives. Bill Moyers explores the song’s origins and enduring power in conversations with Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Jean Ritchie, Jessye Norman and members of the Harlem Boys Choir.

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[Friday night, Philadelphia]

MARION WILLIAMS:[singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. [on camera] That’s one song that get to most everybody. You noticed it. It’s a song that get to the heart of man.

[singing] I once was lost, yeah, but now I’m found. / I was blind, but now I see. [on camera] I think it’s the words, really, a lot of the time. The music is nice, but the words-it get more to the people than anything.

JUDY COLLINS: I knew this song, “Amazing Grace,” from probably before I can remember having known it. One didn’t think about hits in those days, even though I’m sure that there were people who had to think about that sort of thing. I certainly didn’t think of it as something with great mass potential appeal and, as it turned out, that was the song that people started to play. It was in 1970. People started to request it, disc jockeys started to play it, becoming very, very popular. And people, I think, turned to it as though it was something that they’d already known and that, as though they were being-their memories, their inner memory was being refreshed, so that they knew it, “Ah, yes, I know that.”

[singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now I’m found. J Was blind, but now I see.

JUDY COLLINS: For me, it was always the song that gave me an inner experience of another dimension. When I sing this song with a group of people, I always feel that there’s a mystical territory between the singer and the audience. It’s not just me singing, it’s something else that’s singing. And it’s all of those people and all of their spirits, so that somewhere or other, there is some experience going on which gives something to them and gives something to me that’s more than the sum of any of us.

I always think that the experience of bliss, of pleasure, of joy, of singing is something that you experience on different level not a material level. And ‘Amazing Grace’ has always locked into that center for me. It kind of hits me on the same place every time.

BILL MOYERS: The version done by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards took it back to top of the lists in Europe after your version had gone at the top of the list here and their too. So that was two times in a very short period of time that ‘Amazing Grace’ became an —— favorite.

JUDY COLLINS: It tells you.. it says something about this longing, this need to be steered. To be brought to a different level.

[singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now I’m found. J Was blind, but now I see.


JEAN RITCHIE, Folk Singer: I have people who say, when I get up to sing a folk song from-an old song from the family, “Oh, that’s a quaint old thing, isn’t it? These things are really all dead, aren’t they?” And I’d say, “Well, no, they’re not dead or they wouldn’t be here now. They’ve lived all these years. They’ve got something to offer to people.” And so have our family memories.

[Family Reunion, Viper, Kentucky]

WILMER RITCHIE: We were all boys in the family, except 10. There was Muy, Ollie, Mallie, Una, Raymond, Kitty, Truman, Patty, Edna, Jewel, Pauline, Wilmer and Jean, and I’m Wilmer. This is the 10th reunion we’ve had, and we are very fortunate that as many of us are left as there are, that can come home and see all these grandchildren.

BARBARA McNALLY:: Well I haven’t been back to a reunion like this for about 4 years. And i’m really busy in Los Angeles, I manage a law office for my husband and you know I work full-time and you know have 2 kids so my life is very different than this. I don’t think about this kind of life and then I come back and it’s all still here and its the same as it has been. The people are the same, and the values are the same and the songs are the same. And it’s something real stable in my life. I know its always gonna be here when I come back.

[family singing] The sun refused to shine / The lord had sent me here below.

WILMER RITCHIE: We used to set on the front porch of this old house before it was remodeled. We had a swing up there, and in the evenings, they would all sit up and set and sing, and, usually, that was the last song that they sung, “Amazing Grace.” My mother sang it. I remember even my father sang “Amazing Grace.” And then my mother belonged to the old regular Baptist Church at Jeff, Kentucky, and I remember when I was a little boy I would go with her down there, and they would line off the songs. And I can remember so well, the preacher would get up there and he’d say, “Amazing grace, how sweet it’s sound,” and then everybody would sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” “that saved a wretch like me,” and then they’d all come out with, “that saved a wretch like me!” “Once I was lost, but now I’m found,” and so on. So, like, it went on through the whole thing like that. It was really touching for a young boy, you know. It makes the shivers run over you, you know.

BARBARA McNALLY: We sang it every time we would sing hymns. In fact, I remember as a child -my cousin and I talked about this one time -she told me, she said, “I used to have to go and hide in the closet when they sang the hymns.” And I said, “Why?” She said, “Because I’d be crying so hard.” I said, “You know, I do the same thing. Every time they start singing these hymns, tears just start coming out of my eyes, and I don’t know I why. I don’t understand it, you know. It just really affects me some way. It’s like roots, just reaching so far down.

JEAN RITCHIE: The Ritchies came over to this country from Scotland in 1768. I imagine the song was-I don’t-was it written after that?

BILL MOYERS: It was written sometime about that time. You know who wrote it?

JEAN RITCHIE: Isaac Newton.

BILL MOYERS: John Newton.

JEAN RITCHIE: John Newton. Right. I knew it was a Newton.

BILL MOYERS: Do you know anything about him?

JEAN RITCHIE: No, I don’t know a thing about him. I’ve just seen his name on the song.

BILL MOYERS: Would it surprise you to know that he’d been a slave trader, a captain of a slave ship?

JEAN RITCHIE: Well I hope he got religion before he wrote the song.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what happened.

[The Parish of Olney, England]Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now I’m found. J Was blind, but now I see.

Rev. HEREWARD COOKE: John Newton was, in his own words, an infidel and a libertine in the early part of his life, but later on he was a reformed character, and became a Christian minister in the Church of England. He was born in 1725, and he died in 1807, so he had a good life. The early part of his life, though, was clouded with shame and disgrace, according to his later thoughts. But he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” when he took his first cure in the parish of Olney, in the county of Buckinghamshire. He probably wrote in the years about 1760, 1770.

Rev. CHRISTOPHER BURDON, Olney Parish: Well, John Newton was the curate here in Olney. He was appointed here in 1764 and started a very lively sort of preaching, a lot of preaching about himself and his own experience and the work of grace in his life. And he also, in addition to the church services, he started a weekly prayer meeting and he persuaded his friend, William Cowper, who later became quite famous as a poet, to write hymns, together with him, so that they were taking turns to write a new hymn for each of these weekly meetings.

“Amazing Grace,” of course, was one of those. As far as we know, it was written, like most of his hymns and sermons, in his study right at the top there, the top right-hand room of the vicarage.

“JOHN NEWTON” [read by Jeremy Irons]: October 27th, 1778. How industriously is Satan served. I was formerly one of his active undertempters, and had my influence been equal to my wishes, I would have carried all the human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was. I had the ambition of a Caesar or an Alexander, and wanted to rank in wickedness among the foremost of the human race. Oh, to grace, how great a debtor!

“Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.” [Deuteronomy 15:15].

CHRISTOPHER BURDON: Newton’s background was pretty rough, really. He came from a seafaring family. He lost his mother at an early age and he didn’t do much at school at all, but his father eventually managed to get him a job at sea. But he ran away, and then he got press-ganged into the navy, and then he mutinied from another ship -he had a very rough time -and then he ended up in the slave trade.

HEREWARD COOKE: One of his main experiences, when he was given the command of a ship out of Liverpool, was to take manufactured items from Great Britain, and export them to West Africa. And there, he would exchange them with the traders on the coast for slaves.

“JOHN NEWTON”: Monday, the 12th of November, 1750. This morning, Mr. Clow showed me seven slaves, out of which I picked four, three men, one woman. Paid what goods I had in the boat that were suitable, and am to send the rest. In the afternoon, weighed with the sea breeze, and ran halfway to the Bananas. Then it fell calm.

HEREWARD COOKE: He was a prolific writer, and that’s made all the difference to our knowledge of him. He kept not only a daily journal, which he wrote extensively, but also his whole volume of letters. And historians tell me that John Newton’s journal and letters were the first really important account of what it was like to be at sea in the slave trade business.

“JOHN NEWTON”: Monday, the seventh of January, 1751. This morning, went on board Captain Coburn, he having told me that he had eight slaves to change with me for teeth and wood, according to our agreement at the Bonanas, but could not take them upon his terms, which were 60 bars per head round, though there were but three sizable and two of the remaining five under three foot, six inches. Sent the steward to shore again in the yawl to purchase the woman slave, and brought her up in the evening, number 46. She cost 63 bars, though she had a very bad mouth.

HEREWARD COOKE: He also, of course, had a financial interest in the voyage. If the trip was successful and he made money, then he could take a share of it. This was particularly important to him, because his sweetheart’s parents were keen that he should be sufficiently established in life, with money, in order to marry their eldest daughter. And without that money, he was doomed to failure.

“JOHN NEWTON”: Usually, about two-thirds of a cargo of slaves are males. When 150 or 200 stout men, torn from their native land, and who often bring with them an apprehension they are bought to be eaten, I say, when thus circumstanced, it is not to be expected that they will tamely resign themselves to their situation. It is always taken for granted that they will attempt to gain their liberty, if possible. Accordingly, as we dare not trust them, we receive them on board from the first as enemies.

CHRISTOPHER BURDON: He saw himself very much as a free thinker, who was notorious among the sailors, apparently, who were a fairly rough lot then, notorious for the terrible oaths that he used to come out with, and this quite alarmed them. And one day, he was in the middle of the Atlantic, in a storm at sea, and it seemed as though the ship was sinking and everything would be lost and he suddenly exclaimed, “Well, if nothing can be done, Lord, have mercy upon us!” And then he went back to his cabin and he thought about what he’d said, and what did this mean, “Lord, have mercy upon us”? This was the sort of thing he wasn’t supposed to believe in at all. And somehow he realized that there, in the middle of the storm, God had addressed him, that he believed in God, and God’s grace was working, actually, in him and for him and, gradually, his life changed.

JESSYE NORMAN: [singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now I’m found. / Was blind, but now I see. / ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved. / How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed!

[on camera] I’m sure the first time I heard it must have been in the church. This was what going to church really meant to me, the music. And I’m sure that it was done a cappella, and it was probably done in the way that we refer to this kind of thing in the Baptist Church, that the hymn was “raised,” that some deacon stood up, just as they would in an African tribe and said, “I want to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ a hymn in common meter,” and he starts to sing, and then the church joins in.

BILL MOYERS: Does it surprise you that this song, which you sang naturally in church years ago, has now become so universally popular and-


BILL MOYERS: -and recognized and received?

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes. I am surprised by that, and I was surprised at the popularity that this song seemed to gain in the ’60s. I was very surprised by that.

BILL MOYERS: Up until then, it was pretty well in the province of your church and my church.


BILL MOYERS: And religious folk of the country.


BILL MOYERS: But somehow the genie got out of the bottle

JESSYE NORMAN: Yeah, it really did

BILL MOYERS: -the grace-

JESSYE NORMAN: -and it stayed there.

JESSYE NORMAN: I didn’t know that the melody that we know is an American one, an American folk melody. We don’t know how this came to be. But it’s interesting, the life of John Newton. I find this quite unbelievable, that he’d been aboard ships where slaves were transported from West Africa to England or to the United States, and then he found grace and changed his ways. I mean, this is amazing. I mean, the thing that I was thinking about, reading the material, is that wouldn’t it be quite unbelievable if this melody were originally a slave melody, and these words were written by John Newton? Wouldn’t that be an incredible coincidence?

BILL MOYERS: You’ve sung it in many places.

JESSYE NORMAN: I’ve sung it so many times, and I’ve sung it with orchestra, I’ve sung it-last summer I sang it quite a lot at the end of recitals. There was a wonderful concert, it was really a rock concert, for the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela in London last June, and at the end of this rock concert, which went on for hours, I think it must have been at least 12 hours of rock music, there I was, sort of standing in a white spotlight at the end with 70,000 rock fans that really wanted the Dire Straits to go on one more song. And out I came to sing “Amazing Grace” at the end.

BILL MOYERS: Was that spontaneous on your part?

JESSYE NORMAN: Well, no, I was asked to do it by the organizers of the concert. I wasn’t at all sure that was a good idea, and it was certainly something that a lot of the rock fans did not understand. But after a while, they finally quieted down to listen, and some of them sang with me, and they were forced to remember why they’d been there, that it was not only a rock concert, it was a remembrance of somebody that was in prison for the wrong reason. [singing] And grace my [ears relieved. / How precious-

BILL MOYERS: There is a power of reconciliation that takes place when I hear it.


BILL MOYERS: I don’t quite understand it myself.

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes. I don’t know whether it’s the text-I don’t know whether we’re talking about the lyrics when we say that it touches so many people, or whether it’s that tune that everybody knows. And even the melody has changed a little bit. I mean, when I sang it, I tried to sing it the way it was published about 1900, but it the melody itself has had some variations as well. The way it was written, we have

[sings] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved-all of that is really quite-quite straight. But I think by the time in the ’60s, when Judy Collins was doing it, I mean, it took on an even more kind of lyrical quality

[sings] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me, all of these lovely moving notes in between the original melody.

BILL MOYERS: Have you ever heard any shape note singers sing it down in the South?

JESSYE NORMAN: It’s really quite something. I can’t possibly imitate that, but it-

BILL MOYERS: It’s primal, there’s something primal there.

JESSYE NORMAN: -it really is. I mean, it becomes something that’s really coming from the center of the Earth, it sounds like.

[Sunday Sing, Holly Springs, Georgia]

HUGH McGRAW, Song Leader: I would think that when they first introduced “Amazing Grace” and started to sing it, they sang it just like it-we sing today. We sing it just like it was sung when it was first put in the book, a hundred and fifty years ago. A hundred years ago, there was-just about all you had through this whole country down here was shape notes. There wasn’t anything else. And there wasn’t a lot of people down in rural sections of the country, 100, 150 years ago. And when you had an all-day singing, you’d just about get the whole town and whole community. “Amazing Grace” has been just about used the same way since the start of putting it in books.

The shapes wasn’t invented until 1798, by Smith and Little. They wrote a book, and they said a “fa” will be triangular, “so” will be round, “la” will be square and “me” will be diamond-shaped. And then they started singing shaped notes all over the country, in the singing schools, because it was the easiest method in the world for beginners to learn to sing.

If you put seven round notes on the scale, it’s hard to get the sound of them without some kind of instrument or something to help you. But here you could start off with your “fa,” “so,” “la,” faso-la-mi-fa, you’d go up and you’d find out the sound of it. And today, we still sing the shapes first, because it’s become a tradition with us.

[to crowd] Everybody is invited out to dinner on the table, and if you got dinner that you want to spread with us, be sure to spread it out with us, and we’ll help you eat it up. Everybody dismissed for about one hour.

That was a real good appropriate time for you to sing that. It was real good. And it sure was good.

1st WOMAN, Holly Springs Sing: My family always sang Sacred Harp, and I just grew up singing Sacred Harp. And I’ve been coming here ever since I can remember, as a small child…

1st MAN, Holly Springs Sing: We come twice a year up here we. We have one in June and then one in November, but they’re all over. We go about every Sunday.

2nd WOMAN: I think it’s the feeling that you have, and the tradition. And it’s tied in with your families and mem-there’s a lot of good memories, you know. But then we worship the Lord in song, and I like that.

They sing “Amazing Grace” a lot, in this singing and all singings. And it’s beautiful everywhere.

1st MAN: It’s just a good song, wrote like it’s supposed to be written.”

HUGH -McGRAW: “Amazing Grace” is not the name of the song in our book; it’s named “New Britain.” We don’t know where the tune come from. We’ve come to the conclusion that it was a ballad that was sung many, many years ago in some of the old countries, and somebody has taken the ballad, and put the words of “Amazing Grace” to it.

It’s more than just the sound, it’s the fellowship and the love that we have for one another that makes us sing our hearts out for one another.

[91st Birthday, Ozark, Alabama]

HUGH McGRAW: They’s another group that sings shape notes down in South Alabama, called black sacred harp. They actually call theirself [sic] the Wireglass Singers. And Dewey Williams, he leads the singing.

DEWEY WILLIAMS, Song Leader: [singing] I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. You can sing it another way. Ama-zing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me / lance was lost, but now I’m found / Was a-blind, but now I see. [more church singing with congregation].

I feel good, I can’t help it when I get to singing Amazing Grace, it just do something to me.

DEWEY WILLIAMS: We’re here for the 91st birthday of Dewey. Ninety-one years ago, I didn’t know nothing. But I was here, thank God. And I’m still here. I’m glad to be here, glad to see my friends. I’m glad to see all of you.

CHURCH MEMBER: Sure enough.

DEWEY WILLIAMS: All of you feel pretty good, hold up your hand. Amen. I sure feel pretty good.

CONGREGATION:[singing] Oh, give me just a little more time / Oh, give me just a little more time / So many me precious souls are lost at sea / So, many, many left behind / I got a lot of things that I need to do / Before I leave this earth behind / So, I’m ready when you call me, Lord / Give me just a little more time.

DEWEY WILLIAMS: I was born in 1898, March 5th, rights across the field. When I was about seven years old, living in Corpus County, they’d have night singings. My daddy and my neighbors, they would sing. And my grandfather was a songster, and Daddy was a songster. He couldn’t sing a lot of songs like I could, neither one of them, but they were singers. Now, they could raise any kind of hymn, my granddaddy could. He could raise any kind of hymn, common, long, short. He’d sing ’em any way you want to fetch it. He’d raise that hymn. And he could sing the sacred harp notes. But he didn’t know them like I do, and couldn’t sing them like I do.

BILL MOYERS: Your granddaddy?

DEWEY WILLIAMS: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Now, he was a slave, wasn’t he?

DEWEY WILLIAMS: Yes, he was.

BILL MOYERS: You remember him?

DEWEY WILLIAMS: Yeah, sure, I remember him. He died in ’28.

BILL MOYERS: Nineteen twenty-eight?

DEWEY WILLIAMS: That’s when he died.

BILL MOYERS: And he’d been a slave.

DEWEY WILLIAMS: Been a slave. He was a young boy, but he could remember it.

BERNIECE HARVEY, Reading Letter: To my uncle on his 91st birthday. May I start by saying God loves you, and so do I. You have reached a golden milestone in your life. What is life? Life is a challenge, meet it. Life is a journey, complete it. Life is a promise, fulfill it. Life is a beauty, praise it. Life is a struggle, fight it. Life is a goal, achieve it. Life is a sorrow, overcome it. Life is a tragedy, face it. Life is a duty, perform it. Life is a mystery, unfold it. Life is a song, sing it. Life is love, love it. Uncle Dewey, I think this is what you have done in your lifetime. With God’s help and the love and support of our family, have a very happy birthday. I truly hope you have many, many more. With love, Catherine Casey, March, 1989, happy birthday.

DEWEY WILLIAMS: [singing] Through many dangers, toil and snares / I have already come / ‘Twas grace has brought me safe this far / And grace will lead me home. Now, ain’t that wonderful?

BILL MOYERS: How does a man live a life of joy?

DEWEY WILLIAMS: Well, you got to be between poor and rich. That’s right. That’s the only way you can live a happy life. You can’t-

BILL MOYERS: Between poor and rich.

DEWEY WILLIAMS: -that’s right. If you’re too poor, you can’t live happy and if you’re too rich, you ain’t gonna live happy. Of course, either one of them is gonna get you, because they know you’ve got words or money.

BERNIECE HARVEY: You gonna sing? I’ll help you.

2nd DAUGHTER: Not-not dear.


2nd DAUGHTER: We cutting pork now.

BERNIECE HARVEY: You could cut and sing at the same time.

2nd DAUGHTER: I’ve got to get this work done first.

BERNIECE HARVEY: Why won’t you sing just a little bit of it?

2nd DAUGHTER: Just wait, child. You need help when you’re singing these songs.

FAMILY MEMBERS: [singing] Talkin’ about amaze-amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch-saved a wretch like me / lance was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now-now, but now I see / Through many dangers, toil and snares / I have already-have already come / ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far / And grace will lead-grace will lead me home / Oh, “singing about” amaze-amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch-saved a wretch like me / lance was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now-now, but now I see.

WILLIAMS’ GRANDDAUGHTER: This is a song that has always been sung by black people, you know, in church. In church was where I learned to sing “Amazing Grace,” and then being around my grandfather, he–“Amazing Grace” is like a theme song of the Wiregrass sacred harp singers. They always open up with it. So it’s just a song in the South that you just always hear at church.

BILL MOYERS: Your grandfather is Dewey Williams, right?


BILL MOYERS: And his grandfather-and his grandfather and grandmother were slaves.


BILL MOYERS: And you know the hymn was written by a slave trader?


BILL MOYERS:Isn’t that odd?




BILL MOYERS: What does grace mean to you?

WILLIAMS’ GRANDSON: Well, grace is-I’d say forgiving. That’s grace.

BILL MOYERS: Has it made a difference in your life?

WILLIAMS’ GRANDSON: Oh, yes. Me, and many other people, I’m sure. Probably everybody on earth, ’cause we’re all human, and we all do things that we should not do.

WILLIAMS’ DAUGHTER: I remember one day, my brother got very angry about working so hard in the field. And he’d say he was quitting, he was leaving. He was not going to work any more. He was not going to plow any more mule, he’s going-“I’m leaving here.” And he went on up across the field like he was going, you know, and my father’d say, “Huey come back, because better days are comin’ by and by.” And so he finally-he got almost to the road, and he turned around and came back, and went to workin’ again. And that’s what grace, you know, to me-my father knew that there were going to be a better day, because the grace was going to help us, you know. If we could just have patience, and wait, we would see a better day.

BILL MOYERS: Are young people today picking it up, singing it, carrying on the tradition?


BILL MOYERS: Who does? This little girl?


BILL MOYERS: Oh, she has a different-let’s hear her sing it.

FAMILY MEMBER: Ruthena, come back.

BILL MOYERS: Can you sing it for us?

FAMILY MEMBER: They want you to sing “Amazing Grace.” Come on, honey.

BILL MOYERS: Your mother says you have a different rendition of it.

RUTHENA: Different words.

[singing] Amazing grace shall always be my, my song of praise / For it was grace that brought my liberty / I do not know just how he came to love me so / He looked beyond all of my faults / And he saw my need.

BILL MOYERS: Now, Mr. Williams, do you remember singing to your children, your grandchildren, when they were little?

DEWEY WILLIAMS: A Many a time. A Many a time.

BILL MOYERS: You remember him singing “Amazing Grace?”

RUTHENA: Yes, the old way. When I was a little girl I used to come up here every year and sit down and listen to him sing the notes.

BILL MOYERS: What was your favorite version of it?

RUTHENA: Of “Amazing Grace?”


RUTHENA: The old way.

JOHNNY CASH, Singer: [singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me! / lance was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see / It was grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed! [on camera] That song has a very significant personal meaning to me, in that my brother Jack-I recorded an album called Precious Memories and dedicated the album to him. My brother Jack was killed in an accident in 1944.

I lived in Dyess, Arkansas -D-Y-E-S-S -it was one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal farms. The 14,000 acres was cut up into 20-acre tracts, each with a house and a barn and a mule. I think, probably, during that time, why that song dug so deep within my soul, was that my mother and I and my sisters sang that song in the cotton fields after my brother died, as we worked.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s what a man called David Allen Coe, “just a friend,” he signs himself, ex-convict, says on the jacket of Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories:

“It’s been said he [Johnny Cash] has never been in prison, but I find myself looking at him as if he’s done more time than I have. Each man has his own prisons. Perhaps his prisons weren’t the same as mine, but I know his prisons have left their mark on him as surely as the 20 years I spent left more marks on me than the tattoos that cover my body.”

We all do have our prisons, don’t we?

JOHNNY CASH: Yeah, we do. We can get ourself into a little prison of, you know, drugs, alcohol, a relationship or a habit or a situation, you know, that we weave ourselves into that can be like a prison, with bars that you can’t break out of.

[singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound-

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever think back to that first time you sang at the Huntsville prison, back in ’57?

JOHNNY CASH: Oh, yeah, I sure do. That was my first prison concert, at Huntsville. For that three minutes that that song is going on, everybody is free. And it just frees the spirit, it frees the person.

[Huntsville Prison, Huntsville, Texas]

1st PRISONER: I’ve been locked up half my life. I have seen and done just about anything you can imagine. I came in here for that.

BILL MOYERS: How much longer are you going to be here?

1st PRISONER: Who knows? You know. That’s irrelevant right now, anyway. I’m just-I’m dealing with day to day. I don’t worry about next week or next year.

BILL MOYERS: What are you in here for?

1st PRISONER: Murder, drugs, armed robbery, burglary of a house at night, and-you know, I was a real idiot out there. Once it started, it was just one thing after another. I ended up in a lockup, in solitary over there, and I was thinking, “Boy, you idiot, you know, you thought you were so smart, you know. All these years, man, you’ve been playing it so clever, and then, you know, look where you’re at now. You’re never going to get out of here. You’re never going to get out of here.”

And almost immediately the words to “Amazing Grace” became real to me. I couldn’t hardly sing that song and get through, you know, four verses of it without choking up. I could get through about the second verse, and I would start kind of locking up, you know, and a lot of times all I could do was just be humming and crying, because of this-you know, it was a real-it’s a real song even now to me.

2nd PRISONER: It has to be taken in an overall view, but probably the most favorite lines to me, that mean something to me now, are the second verse, where it’s talking about that grace caused you to fear, and at first you think that doesn’t make sense, but when you come in here and you start taking a look, you do fear. Man, I mean, you get so afraid, you know, that you’re not going to get your life in order in time. It’s a fear that is hard to put into words, of being alone, of being locked in when you’re used to being free.

BILL MOYERS: And in those circumstances “Amazing Grace” is no way out. It’s not going to unlock those bars.

2nd PRISONER: No, but that’s your only chance in here. This is it. The only way out is up.

3rd PRISONER: I remember reading the story about John Newton while I was in County jail before I came down here and went back on bench warrant. And I was touched by his story that he was a slave trader, captain of a ship. But that he began to see something happening in the lives of these slaves that he had. He listened to their songs and something touched him. He begin to have understanding with the suffering that they were going through and he realized he was a part of that.

BILL MOYERS: You know, some people are going to find it difficult to believe that hardened men like you really would be affected by a song like this, and they’re going to be very skeptical. They’re going to say, “Well, it was just a kind of religious spasm; that’s just kind of a-that it’s nothing but piety, nothing but sentiment.”

4th PRISONER: You know, Bill, you know, we have had an opportunity and a chance to face our transgressions. We had a lot of time to think about it. And we have been reconciled. We have peace in our hearts.

BILL MOYERS: What are you in here for?

4th PRISONER: I’m here for solicitation of capital murder, trying to arrange for having my wife killed.

BILL MOYERS: When did you first understand the meaning of “Amazing Grace?”

4th PRISONER: That was in November of 1987, when I got here. You know, this is why I could speak, because I was one of these church crowds who’d never realized, you know, the true meaning of “Amazing Grace.”

BILL MOYERS: You didn’t experience it outside.

4th PRISONER: I was hiding behind it. I was very involved in the church. I was a deacon in a Baptist church. I sang in the choir. I taught Bible study-I mean, you know, so-

BILL MOYERS: And you tried to have your wife killed?

4th PRISONER: -and then I tried to have my wife killed, okay?

BILL MOYERS: So what’s your favorite verse?

4th PRISONER: “Through many trials and toils and snares, it’s grace has been very-” The third verse.

3rd PRISONER: Those words in themselves hold a story for a generation of people, if they just listen.

PRISON CHOIR: [singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see / ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed!

JOHNNY CASH: As a songwriter, you know what I think about that song, as a songwriter, objectively? There is a song with no guile. Those lyrics are straight-ahead, honest, gut-level and heart-level.

[singing] When we’ve been there 10,000 years / Bright shining as the sun / We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / Than when we first begun.

[on camera] When I sing that song, I could be in a dungeon, or I could have chains all over me, but I’d be free as a breeze. It’s a song that makes a difference. There are some songs that make a difference in your life, and that song makes a difference.


Dr. WALTER. TURNBULL, Choir Director: If you see any child who is just passing time, most like to sing or listen to music or, in this day and age, rap, so there’s a certain means of expression that’s good for them, and they feel very good about that. It’s a way to express, to come from the inner soul, and I think that that’s very important.

[to children during rehearsal] All the way from the top. Sit up, if you’re sitting, okay?

Warm now, but it’s still got to be on pitch, trebles, when you come back, okay? So keep the support up under it, okay? Everybody, just generally warmer, all right? Same thing, please. Very legato. I’m thinking calm, smooth, meditative, you know. Ready, and

[on camera] It sort of goes back to, I think, to my experiences as a child in Mississippi. I grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. I got a choir scholarship to go to college, which was the only way to go to college, and I sang my way through college.

Being involved in the church, being involved in choir all my life, I decided to get a group of kids together. By that time I had begun to teach in the New York City public schools as well, and it sort of all came together, because I found that working with children in terms of choir and then feeling good about themselves, the resultant feelings about themselves, really made them do exciting things otherwise.

[to children during rehearsal] Come on, that’s not it.

1st BOY, Harlem Boys Choir Member: Well, they auditioned me at my school, and out of a lot of boys, it was only a group of us that made it. And out of the group that made it, they came to the choir every day, and some days they picked us up. But most of the boys that came in with me, they quit. I’m the only one from my school that still stayed. I was in a little training trouble, I still wasn’t into the choir that much, and so I was like-“Amazing Grace,” that’s what they sing, and I heard of it before, but I didn’t really understand it. And it was kind of hard.

At the beginning of “Amazing Grace,” there’s a lot of “oohs,” right? And you have to have a lot-you know, breath support and everything, you know, you keep it up. When you keep your mouth in this kind of position,. like that, it kind of hurts, you know, around your mouth. So that’s why I say it’s hard.

2nd BOY, Harlem Boys Choir Member: Well, we usually sing every year at. Aaron Davis Hall, and the first time, the choir had just came from off a tour, and we were going to meet the parents at Aaron Davis Hall. And when we got into the pop show after the classical, we came-we started singing “Amazing Grace.” And my mother started crying after, and I was like, I said, “Ma, why are you crying?” all right. And she said, she said, “I’m not crying because nothing bad happened,” she’s crying because she was happy and joyful and everything like that, because she said it-she said to me that it brings back memories from a long, long time ago. So I was happy to sing it for her, and all the other people in the audience.

WALTER TURNBULL: “Amazing Grace” is one of the very popular songs in our repertoire, and we’ll be doing it in Japan, singing it in Japan. [to children during rehearsal] No! Carry it through ‘Lord,’ please. Pitches again, please. One, two. [on camera] I think it’s important that it plays a role in their lives other than just singing, because the singing is the discipline. The music is the discipline whereby the common goal that we have for the kids, and then, from that, they learn all kinds of things, which helps them in their life. We have some boys -men, now -who have become doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, teachers, preachers. And the commonness through that is the discipline, the stick-to-it-iveness, the ability to set a goal and reach it.

CALVIN: I feel different from, you know, the regular kids on the block, ’cause I’m going away, I’m getting to see things that, you know, kids don’t get a chance to see, really, not most of them. I don’t really get to play a lot, you know, ’cause I’m mostly with the choir Saturday and Sunday, traveling somewhere. And I just think I have a different life than regular kids. Except for the kids in the choir. I think we all have the same life. But the kids on the street don’t think we do have the same life.

PIANO TEACHER: [at Calvin’s piano lesson] If you were going to write this for orchestra, what instrument might play this? It’s an introduction, right?

CALVIN: Yes. Probably trumpet?

PIANO TEACHER: Yeah. Sure. Like a fanfare. Bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom. Okay. Can you make the piano sound more like a trumpet at the beginning?

CALVIN: Okay, I’ll try.


CALVIN: There was one period of time when I used to not come. I used to tell my mother I was going to the choir, but I would go home and sit on the stairs and do my homework. Then, like after they got out of rehearsal, then I’d wait a while and then I’d go home.

I just-well, they got on my case. I had to talk to one of the counselors. They knew I was lying, kind of, like-and so I had to clean up my act, and I started coming, and I started liking it.

MOTHER: He might call it peculiar. He might have to say, well, he’s peculiar, he’s different than other kids. He’s always said that. He never used the word grace, because I guess, you know, at 10 he can’t define the feeling. But he-he says he’s peculiar, and I tell him he’s special..

WALTER TURNBULL: They have to be prepared to take their rightful place in the society. It’s a combination of being in touch with themselves spiritually and in terms of feeling, and who they are. And music can help us to do that.

[On Tour, Japan]

OLDER BOYS CHOIR MEMBER: You’re going to have a serious collection, Jose.

JOSE: I know. My mother says she wants to see Japan.

OLDER BOYS CHOIR MEMBER: She wants to see Japan through your eyes.

WALTER TURNBULL: [tailing photograph] Say BCH. One, two, three.


WALTER TURNBULL: Focus, please. Why you looking that way? Focus that way.

[on camera] In other countries, they usually do not understand the origins of the song, but it has such a universal flavor, and just the melody itself is so beautiful, that’s what really captures people.

[to children during rehearsal] Got it, guys?

CHOIR OFFICIAL: Go directly to the dressing room. Do not stop. Do not pass go. Directly to the dressing room. Put on your burgundy and black. Meet upstairs by 2:20. Not 2:25, 2:20. Got it? Okay. The only stop that makes sense is to stop and get your blazer. That is the only stop at this point that makes sense.

WALTER TURNBULL: There’s a dichotomy between a bunch of black kids singing “Amazing Grace,” or, let’s say a black church singing “Amazing Grace,” given the fact that the person who wrote it was a handler of slaves, and was a captain of a ship that carried slaves back and forth. But it has some very deep and important words, and important meaning to those words that we can all relate to. Those are the “kinds” of things that make it universal, as opposed to who it was written by.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think grace is real to these kids, this transforming power that can change a life?

WALTER TURNBULL: I don’t think that most kids recognize that yet. But at the appropriate time, they will remember.

CALVIN: I feel like I’m walking on a beach, and like wind is hitting me, and stuff like that. That’s how I feel about it. Not like a rough wind, like a soft wind, just coming by, like a breeze. That’s what I think grace means to me.

JUDY COLLINS:I had heard that the song was written by a man who had had a wretched life, and been a slave trader. What an expression of, yes, of gratitude and of joy to know that there was the other side to that, which can only been given by such a profound and I would call spiritual experience. I mean, “Amazing Grace”-I mean, it really says, “This choice is wretched and this other one is worlds apart, indescribable.”

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever feel like a wretch?

JUDY COLLINS: Oh, yes, enough so that it always reminds me that there have been those very, very dark times in my own life, some of which, during some of which, this song, I think, really carried me through. “Amazing Grace” is almost like a talisman.

BILL MOYERS: What were some of the-the deepest or darkest dangers that you experienced when this illumination was important? Was it custody fight over your son? Was it alcohol?

JUDY COLLINS: I think it was alcohol, perhaps, most of all, because during those times particularly, I think, that song was the thing that was able to pull me through. It heals.

[singing, in concert] Was blind, but now I see. Beautiful.

BILL MOYERS: I notice you dropped the fifth and sixth verses written by Newton and use the final verse which was written by an American. Did you know that…

JUDY COLLINS: No i didn’t know that.

BILL MOYERS: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years”

JUDY COLLINS: Oh I love that. So Newton wrote up to that verse?

BILL MOYERS: Ahmm and that is an American..

JUDY COLLINS: So Newton wrote, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved.” What a pair of lines.

[on camera] I remember being in Mississippi with Fannie Lou Hamer, and going on the voter registration drives. I was there in the summer of ’64. And we’d get to the town where we were to do a rally for voter registration, Drew, Mississippi, or Ruleville, Mississippi, little, tiny towns where people were really risking their lives to come out. And they would come.

And the thing that brought them out was the singing. Now, Fannie Lou Hamer was a great singer, and when she would sing “Amazing Grace,” oh, you couldn’t help but sing, and you couldn’t help but feel moved. And you could even see that these other-the people who were there to perhaps prevent what was going on, even they were involved. You can’t help it. It lifts the whole activity on to another level when you sing. It’s terribly important to hear your own heart reflect the hearts of other people, and the song, I think, fits almost every situation you would put it in.

[Philadelphia, In Church]

MARION WILLIAMS: I wanted to bring Robin up. My grandson. “Amazing Grace” was not written to gain money from it. It was written from the soul. [in church] You can sing this song any style.

[singing] I was young but I recall / This is the black way of singing it -Singing songs – black gospel – Was my mother’s joy / And as the shadow gathered at the close of day / As I sat upon her knee / In those days -they were some good days that used to be / As she sang of a God’s mercy and grace / Amazing grace, how-how sweet-how sweet-how sweet the sound

/ That sailed a wretch like me / lance was lost, Hallelujah, but right now, right now, right now I am found / I was blind, but now I see.

“JOHN NEWTON”: Thoughts upon the African slave trade, 1788. I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders. I first saw the coast of Guinea in the year 1745, and took my last leave of it in 1754. I fitted out for a fourth voyage and was upon the point of sailing when I was arrested by a sudden illness, and I resigned the ship to another captain. Thus, I was unexpectedly freed from this disagreeable service. Disagreeable I had long found it, but I think I should have quitted it sooner had I considered it, as I do now, to be unlawful and wrong, but I never had a scruple upon this head at the time, nor was such a thought once suggested to me by any friend. What I did, I did ignorantly, considering it as a line of life which divine providence had allotted me and having no concern in point of conscience but to treat the slaves while under my care with as much humanity as a regard to my own safety would admit.

[Olney, England]

CHRISTOPHER BURDON: It’s very hard for us, I think, to understand this today; for sometime after his conversion to Christianity he continued in the slave trade. He said that he became a little more lenient towards his slaves, but he didn’t see anything fundamentally wrong with the traffic, and it was only later in life, and particularly when he was in London, and in contact with William Wilberforce, that he became — he came out, as it were, as an advocate for abolishing the slave trade, and, in fact, gave a great deal of information and ammunition to Wilberforce and to the royal commission on the slave trade, and it was just before he died that the act finally went through Parliament.

HEREWARD COOKE: William Wilberforce, who was looking for a purpose in life, rather latched on to this cause as one that he could fight, and he took it up in the House of Commons and fought for legislation against slavery for many years thereafter. But it was mainly through John Newton, talking about his experience in the slave trade, that the important and influential people in London came to realize that it was not good.

“JOHN NEWTON”: With our ships, the great object is to be full. The cargo of a vessel of 100 tons or little more is calculated to purchase from 220 to 250 slaves, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close that the shelf would not easily contain one more, and I have known a white man sent down among the men to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost.

I write from memory, after an interval of more than 30 years, but at the same time, I believe many things which I saw, heard and felt upon the coast of Africa are so deeply en graven in my memory that I can hardly forget, or greatly mistake them.

HEREWARD COOKE: I always think that the line, “Saved a wretch like me,” was not only very true to the 18th century, when that sort of language would have been used, but he really thought of himself as a wretch. The way he described himself, as being viler than anything, tied in with feelings about himself as being a sinner.

“JOHN NEWTON”: To be inscribed upon my death John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.

[Viper, Kentucky]

JEAN RITCHIE: When I asked my mother why these old songs were so sad and mournful-sounding -this was when I was a little girl -she said, “Well, honey, they’re not sad, they’re reverent.” She said, “You get so much more joy out of a song when you relish the notes and savor the tune.” Grace can mean so much, so many things. It can cover many many parts of your life. It’s by grace that we’re here I guess and people lived graciously, gracefully. I think my mother and father had graceful lives and they lived by hard rules in those days and they did it well and they raised their family and it’s all part of it i think.

BILL MOYERS: What is it that holds a family like this together?

1st WOMAN, Ritchie Family: Well, that’s hard to say. It’s memories, I think. It’s shared memories, shared reality, shared values. And for us, it’s the shared songs and the music, you know, that really do strike those chords inside of each of us.

RITCHIE FAMILY MEMBERS: [singing] Precious memories, unseen angels / Sent from somewhere to my soul/How they linger-

JEAN RITCHIE: Every year during the reunion we go up on the little community graveyard, just above our house, on the little bench around the hillside, and kind of share the reunion with the ones that have gone on.

RITCHIE FAMILY MEMBERS: Precious memories, how they linger / How they ever flood my soul.

JEAN RITCHIE: My sister, Una, who was born in 1900, died last year. She is buried up there. We haven’t had a memorial service for her yet.

RITCHIE FAMILY MEMBER: This was written by Una, It’es called “Hills”,

“Oh I have loved the hills so long to change their concisouness has grown apart of me, stretching out beyond me, range on range into the bluer sky too far to see. The scents of hills is with me where I go. The lowland fields are down at crowded street. Every wind is winds from heights I know. Straight from the steep hill trails that know my feet. The sea they say will lay its love on one and call him with a passion to it’s breast. But shadowed slopes of ridges in the sun call me to culverts where my soul finds rests. Answer if you must the lunging spars. My heart is given to hills that’s given to the starts.”

JEAN RITCHIE: Well we want to welcome Una back to her hills. So let’s sing ‘Amazing Grace.’

RITCHIE FAMILY MEMBERS: [singing] Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come / ‘Twas grace has brought me safe thus far / And grace will lead me home.

JESSYE NORMAN: There’s a kind of wonderful calm that I feel when I sing this. A kind of uncomplicated feeling, I mean, the way one felt as a child.

BILL MOYERS: Do you have a favorite verse?

JESSYE NORMAN: If I had to choose one, I suppose I would choose “Through many dangers, toils and snares,” because it has such hope at the end. I’ve gotten this far because of grace, and grace will take me the rest of the way, however long or through whatever danger, whatever complexities I will have to get through. The same thing that has brought me this far is going to carry me the rest of the way. I like that.

BILL MOYERS: Your life seems to have been so touched, so blessed, that it’s hard to think of danger, snares and toils.

JESSYE NORMAN: Oh, but I’m afraid those things are in every life. Whatever it might look like from the outside, there are moments when it is very difficult, I think, for most people, for whatever reasons-of-reasons of our own creation. Imagined things, I don’t know. But there-not every moment is one of light and energy and happiness.

[singing] Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far/And grace will lead me home.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a verse that I’ve come across that I had never heard of before, “We lay our garments by, upon our beds to rest.”

JESSYE NORMAN: “Beds to rest.”

BILL MOYERS: You remember that one?

JESSYE NORMAN: Mm-hmm. Certainly do.

BILL MOYERS: “Though death may soon disrobe”-I love that line, “Though death may soon disrobe us all of what we now possess.”

JESSYE NORMAN: “Though death may soon disrobe us all of what we now possess.”

BILL MOYERS: You’d heard that before?


BILL MOYERS: Those are not Newton’s verses.


BILL MOYERS: Which shows you how a hymn


BILL MOYERS: -takes on a life of its own.

JESSYE NORMAN: Oh, it does. I just think it shows what a wonderful thing this is, it is somehow-it’s more than a song, I mean, that people would still go on writing verses for this melody. Kind of amazing.

BILL MOYERS: Out of their life.


“JOHN NEWTON”: Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

[Philadelphia, in church]

MARION WILLIAMS: This is it. [singing] Talking ’bout amazing grace,

CHORUS: Amaze, amaze, amazing grace


CHORUS: How sweet, how sweet the sound


CHORUS: That saved a wretch

MARION WILLIAMS: A wretch like me

CHORUS: Saved a wretch like me


CHORUS: I once, I once

MARION WILLIAMS: Once was lost, and now

CHORUS: And now, but now I’m found

MARION WILLIAMS: I’m found, I was blind

CHORUS: Was blind


CHORUS: But now


CHORUS: Blind but now I see

MARION WILLIAMS: Yeah, amazing

CHORUS: Amaze, amazing grace

MARION WILLIAMS: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

CHORUS: How sweet, how sweet the sound

MARION WILLIAMS: It’s gonna save you one day

CHORUS: That saved a wretch like me

MARION WILLIAMS: And you, and you

CHORUS: Saved a wretch like me


CHORUS: I once, I once was lost

MARION WILLIAMS: Was lost and now

CHORUS: But now, but now I’m [found


CHORUS: Was blind


CHORUS: But now


CHORUS: Was blind but now I see

MARION WILLIAMS: Yeah! Through many

CHORUS: Through many dangers

MARION WILLIAMS: Many dangers, toils and snares

CHORUS: Many dangers, toils and snares

MARION WILLIAMS: I have already come

CHORUS: I have already


CHORUS: Have already come


CHORUS: ‘Tis grace has brought me

MARION WILLIAMS: It brought me safe thus far

CHORUS: Brought me safe thus far


CHORUS: And grace

MARION WILLIAMS: Come and lead me

CHORUS: Will lead me, grace will lead me home.

MARION WILLIAMS: Yes, yeah, talkin’ about amaze

CHORUS: Amaze, amazing grace

MARION WILLIAMS: Yes, how sweet

CHORUS: How sweet, how sweet the sound

MARION WILLIAMS: Sweet the sound that saved

CHORUS: That saved a wretch

MARION WILLIAMS: A wretch like me

CHORUS: Saved a wretch like me


CHORUS: I once, I once was lost

MARION WILLIAMS: Was lost, but now

CHORUS: But now, but now I’m found


CHORUS: Was blind


CHORUS: But now


CHORUS: Blind but now I see.

MARION WILLIAMS: That’s a beautiful song.

CHURCH MEMBER: Hallelujah!

This transcript was entered on March 31, 2015.

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