NEW YORK — Grace is not a word often used to describe New York City. But in a theater on the southern end of the Theater District, an exhibition of grace really touched me.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know the song “Amazing Grace.” It is one of the most recognized songs in the English language. It is a favorite of Christians for an assortment of occasions, particularly funerals.
I’ve heard it sung a cappella, played by great orchestras and singularly by diverse instruments such as a harmonica and a bagpipe. I think my favorite rendition is in the African-American church, when someone, usually an older person, pitches just the first syllable and everyone else instinctively joins in.
It has been sung at nearly every funeral I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended quite a few. Even those who never darkened the door of a church may have it sung at their service.
Some say it has crossed over into popular music. It is estimated it is performed 10 million times a year.
Years ago, when I was in a church youth group, we learned the words to “Amazing Grace” can be set to the tune of the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” Let me warn you, if you attempt this, the song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
“Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton, who in later life became a clergyman in the Anglican church. Before his Christian conversion, Newton was a pretty bad guy. His father was a captain who sailed slave ships from Africa. Young Newton’s mother died of tuberculosis just before he turned 7. At 8, he began sailing with his father.
Later, Newton was forced into service with the Royal Navy. In a storm off the coast of Africa, he nearly drowned. He was taken to what is now Sierra Leone and became a slave to an African princess. In his writings, he said he “once was an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa.”
A number of people influenced his turnaround. They were the woman who became his wife, Elizabeth Catlett, and a slave named Thomas, who was his boyhood caregiver, according to the story on the Broadway stage.
The musical, “Amazing Grace,” opened earlier this year at the Nederlander Theatre in New York. I had a chance to see it last week.
The story is told through the eyes of Thomas, the slave. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty of the slave trade. Some scenes show slaves being treated like livestock.
But the greatest portrayal is the changing heart of John Newton. His life was so raw and sinful.
It has often been written how sailors are not the most well-behaved individuals. The term “cuss like a sailor” is used to describe those with a profane vocabulary. One story said Newton was so foul-mouth the captain of a ship warned him about his language.
In his second life, the life of a believer, Newton wrote more than 200 songs and poems, none better known than “Amazing Grace.” His words of being lost and blind are vivid depictions of his raucous life.
But the musical story of his changed heart is one I will long remember.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.