Tony Cummings quizzed Steve Turner, author of the books Amazing Grace and Cliff Richard: The Biography.
In Christian retail writer Steve Turner is probably best known for his four best selling volumes of children's poetry. However, in the mainstream his perceptive books on a wide range of popular music subjects have brought him considerable critical acclaim with The Man Called Cash likely to follow the success of A Hard Day's Write: The Story Behind Every Beatles Song, Van Morrison: Too Late To Stop Now and Trouble Man: The Life And Death Of Marvin Gaye. In April Lion Hudson put two Turner volumes into the Christian bookshops, Amazing Grace: John Newton, Slavery And The World's Most Enduring Song and a revised and an updated edition of his 1993 best seller Cliff Richard: The Biography. Christian Marketplace pitched some questions to Steve at his London home.
Tony: Amazing Grace was published in the USA in 2002. Why the long delay in it coming out here?
Steve: It was an American publisher that I first sold the idea too. I tried a couple of UK publishers at the time who felt it was "too American" a subject, despite almost all the early action being based here.
Tony: Your book takes us into the arcane world of the hymnologist beautifully. Were you familiar with the concepts of "wandering stanzas" etc before you began work on the book?
Steve: I was pretty much learning on the job, as I always do. That's one of the great pleasures of writing. You start off as a virtual ignoramus on whatever new subject you're tackling and end up an expert!
Tony: Over the years the story of John Newton has been somewhat romanticised by the Church. When you did your research what were the most surprising things you discovered?
Steve: The worst thing that happens to his story is that it gets truncated - slave captain hits bad weather, gets converted, writes Amazing Grace and, er...dies. What is surprising is that he didn't become an actual slave captain until after his conversion (although he had been involved in slave trading before) and Amazing Grace was written over a quarter of a century after the conversion experience. The real story of Newton's life is much more like conversion as we experience it - the process is slow and sometimes it's hard to put a finger on where it actually started.
Tony: There is no definitive evidence about the origins of the popular Amazing Grace melody. Do you personally believe it was Scottish in origin?
Steve: In this area I had to trust the experts. I suspect that we automatically think it sounds Scottish because the bagpipe version is so pervasive, although it wasn't played on pipes before the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded it. A South African musicologist I spoke to assured me that it had all the "fingerprints" of a Scottish tune although that could have been because it was developed in America by immigrants from Scotland.
Tony: It was fascinating to learn that the "When we've been there 10,000 years" stanza came from the hymn Jerusalem My Happy Home and it was Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin who first linked it with Amazing Grace. Were you surprised by this?
Steve: Yes. Tony Heilbut, the author of the Gospel Sound (the definitive history of gospel music) told me that he thought that this was a great discovery. I wasn't saying that Harriet Beecher Stowe joined the two songs but that she must have heard slaves doing this. So this folk operation had already taken place and was later "set in stone" as it were by the hymn book compilers.
Tony: Your book gives plenty of fascinating insight to how non-Christians have reinterpreted the words of Amazing Grace for their own applications. Having said that, don't you think Joan Baez's comment that at the time of the civil rights movement she didn't think "anyone at the time thought of it as a religious song" is a bit disingenuous?
Steve: A bit. She had a Quaker background and was a bit too savvy not to know its origins. I think though that she meant that in its use it was merely a song about blessing and power in a general sense and just as Rugby supporters don't think of the Old Testament prophets as they sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot so Civil Rights marchers didn't think of the Gospel when they sang Amazing Grace. Outside of its specific religious content it had taken on a fresh meaning.
Tony: Isn't the most amazing thing about Amazing Grace that the vast majority of people who have learnt it through the renditions of Judy Collins, Rod Stewart or the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards have absolutely no grasp of what its lyrics say and they could no more define what "grace" means than they could explain "sanctification" or "atonement"?
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