The Enduring Power of 'Amazing Grace' and What It Says About American Unity

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Drag theater artist Taylor Mac performs 'Amazing Grace' as part of the epic cabaret show, 'A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.' The song took on a new meaning for Mac during the Trump presidency. (Courtesy Sarah Walker)

In his inauguration speech on Wednesday, President Biden called for bringing unity to a deeply hurt and divided country.

"This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge," Biden said. "And unity is the path forward."

Right after the president spoke, country music star Garth Brooks sang "Amazing Grace."

It was one of no less than three performances of the old English hymn at Biden's inauguration proceedings: nurse Lori Marie Key sang it at the national COVID-19 memorial on Tuesday and cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed it at the Inauguration Day concert.

Perhaps more than any other popular song in American culture, "Amazing Grace" has become a source of strength and solace for many of our country’s presidents, across the political spectrum, in times of struggle and hardship.

It was played on the bagpipes at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. And Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all called the hymn one of their favorites.

As a variety of California artists with strong connections to the song point out, "Amazing Grace" has a transformative effect on people from all walks of life, and can be a powerful tool to help bring them together in these deeply divided times.

Obama's Solo

Barack Obama is a president who especially understood the universal appeal and healing power of the hymn.

In June 2015, then-President Obama memorably broke into song in the middle of his eulogy for South Carolina state senator and church pastor Clementa Pinckney.

Pinckney, along with eight members of his congregation, had been gunned down at their church by a white supremacist earlier that month. It was the latest in a spate of mass shootings motivated by racial hatred.

That moment, when Obama responded to the massacre by singing “Amazing Grace,” is considered one of the most powerful of his presidency.

So much so, it inspired a new song.

Just days after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, folk singer Zoe Mulford wrote, "The President Sang Amazing Grace."

Mulford’s lyrics recollect a leader who in her mind was able to connect with people in their grief.

"When no words could say what must be said / For all the living and the dead / So on that day and in that place / The president sang 'Amazing Grace.' "

"He was with those people in the church and speaking to them, and he was also speaking to the rest of the country and the rest of the world who were watching him on television," Mulford said. "And the fact that he could be fully present for the people in that room and also be speaking to the rest of us really, really struck me."

One Version Begets Another

Folk radio stations across the country picked up Mulford's song. Famed folk singer Joan Baez happened to be listening while driving near her home in the Bay Area.

"When I first heard it, I had to pull the car over because I started crying," Baez told NPR in a 2018 interview.

She said hearing that song inspired her to make her own version of it.

When Baez sang the song on tour in Paris in 2018, she wrapped up her performance by noting how much she missed Obama.

“He wasn't perfect, but he was a president," Baez told the crowd. "Right now we have nothing. Nothing but destruction."

The cover of the children's book version of 'The President Sang Amazing Grace,' with words by folksinger Zoe Mulford and illustrations by Jeff Scher. (Cameron Kids Copyright Jeff Scher )

Baez released a video to accompany her version of the song.

A book publisher in Sonoma County was transfixed by the animations in the video, drawn by Jeff Scher. Despite the bleakness of the topic, she decided to commission a children’s book using Scher's paintings and Mulford's words.

"One of the reasons we decided to acquire this book was because it was such a dark time in terms of leadership," said Nina Gruener, publishing director of Cameron Kids in Petaluma. "And we were all aching for that kind of elegance and understanding and empathy that Obama so beautifully portrayed on that day."

Then, in those final fraught weeks leading up to last November’s presidential election, a new online music video of "The President Sang Amazing Grace" — featuring San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet and Ethiopian American vocalist Meklit Hadero — racked up hundreds of thousands of views.

Obama’s singing of "Amazing Grace" in Charleston was a moment when Americans were faced with a choice, Hadero said.

"Were we going to choose this path of racist, white supremacist leadership that encourages the darkest parts of American history to wield their guns?" Hadero said. "Or were we going to choose the possibility of something else?"

For Hadero, Obama’s decision to sing "Amazing Grace" spoke to his willingness to be vulnerable.

"We don't want our presidents to do that," she said. "And yet those can be the moments where we connect as human beings to each other. And so, why not have a president that can do that?"

Rooted Deep in the Black Church

"Amazing Grace" has traveled far and wide since English clergyman John Newton, a former slave trader, wrote the lyrics in 1772.

"It’s unclear what, if any, music he used when he invoked it as part of a sermon," said music journalist Steve Turner, the author of the book "Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song." Turner said Newton published the hymn in 1779. "And it found its way over the years into many different hymn collections with many different tunes."

“Amazing Grace” traveled across the Atlantic, where it was enthusiastically picked up by Baptist and Methodist preachers in the nascent United States. Eventually, the words were paired with the now-familiar tune.

The song took particularly deep root in the Black church, where it’s been sung across generations.

"Now 'Amazing Grace' for us, is a traditional song," said Margaret Pleasant Douroux, a gospel music composer and longtime member and choir director of the Greater New Bethel Baptist Church in Inglewood, California. "It has always been a landmark for Black America and Black church."

Douroux, who founded the Heritage Music Foundation, was in the audience the day Aretha Franklin recorded her iconic take on “Amazing Grace” in Los Angeles in 1972. She said it was hard not to sing along with the Queen of Soul.

"We'll just join right in, especially if we know the song," she said. "Somebody’s gonna be singing with Aretha Franklin!"

There’s no song quite like “Amazing Grace,” Douroux said, for capturing the Black Christian experience.

"Amazing Grace means something helped us: 'It was grace that brought us safe thus far, and Grace will lead us on,' " she said, quoting the hymn.

Douroux said Obama's singing of "Amazing Grace" in Charleston meant a great deal to her.

"I'm so proud that President Obama chose that song because it related," she said. "And we don't have many things to relate to Black people in the White House."

California Connections

The song has also reached millions of people outside of the religious community because it speaks so eloquently about rebirth and redemption. Folk singer Judy Collins, who spent some of her childhood in L.A. and struggled for years with alcohol addiction, is among many secular artists who has a strong personal connection to the song.

"I'm sober now 43 years," Collins told KQED. "And the amazing thing is that I ever got sober. It's total grace."

Collins released a landmark version of “Amazing Grace” in 1970, while still battling her addiction, and went on to rerecord the song last year — on the 50th anniversary — backed up by a virtual choir.

"It's a powerful song which reaches all kinds of people of every race, denomination, religious persuasion, color, character," said Collins. "It doesn't matter who you are. Once you hear 'Amazing Grace,' it sticks."

Many artists with California connections have taken the song in completely new directions, like drag theater performer Taylor Mac.

Mac has unhappy memories of being forced to sing the hymn at Christian Science church as a kid growing up in Stockton.

"I can't say that I was particularly drawn to the song at all," Mac said. But over time, it grew on the performer.

Dressed in teetering patent-red platform heels, a fantastical headpiece festooned with balloons and a glittering hoop dress, Mac performed a minor-key version as the opening number in a mammoth stage production chronicling the history of American popular music.

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The critically acclaimed show, "The 24-Decade History of Popular Music," debuted right before the 2016 presidential election and toured the U.S. through much of Trump's presidency.

Mac made a video of "Amazing Grace" on the streets of San Francisco.

"It became kind of a prayer for grace for the country," Mac recalled. "It stopped being about God for me. In the Trump years, it became this beautiful way to start the show and say, 'Hey, we're all praying for actual grace now.' "

Turner, the music journalist, said “Amazing Grace” has such universal appeal, and can see the song, with its call for redemption, becoming a hallmark of Biden’s time in office.

'A Song You Can Sing Together'

"America is now in a situation where there needs to be healing and there needs to be things that both sides agree on," Turner said, pointing to this tumultuous era, which has included racially motivated killings, one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history, the recent assault on the nation’s Capitol, and a deadly, ongoing pandemic.

"There needs to be a song that you can sing together," Turner said.

President Biden's inauguration speech was at heart a call for togetherness.

“Through civil war, the Great Depression, world war, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed," he said. “In each of these moments, enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward. And we can do that now. History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity.”

It makes sense that singer Garth Brooks called on the audience to join in during his performance of "Amazing Grace" at the inauguration.

“I’m going to ask you to sing this last verse with me. Not just the people here. But the people at home. At work. As one. United," Brooks said before launching into the song once more.

Of course, all of us singing "Amazing Grace" together won’t by itself solve this country’s problems. But maybe it’s a good place to start.

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