Type ‘Amazing Grace’ into YouTube and you can cancel any other plans you might have had for the day. Page after page serves up everything from Elvis Presley to Pavarotti, Gospel choirs and winsome Celtic lovelies, folkies in fabulous knitwear and X Factor finalists strenuously proclaiming their surgically enhanced faith; even an American president. There are arrangements for electric guitar, steelpan orchestra, bagpipes or (God help us) beginner flute ensemble.
All of which suggests that James Walvin’s Amazing Grace is a book landing in fertile soil. This is a song that’s part of western cultural furniture, ‘as familiar to most people’, he reminds us, ‘as the words of the national anthem’, as inevitable as ‘thoughts and prayers’, as universal as McDonald’s, all the while being endlessly customisable – oh and, crucially, free from any copyright obligation.
In his introduction, Walvin wonders why. Of all the songs in all the world, why this one? It’s not a question he ever answers satisfactorily, though the ‘how’ is mapped out in often repetitious detail. A career academic and prolific author, Walvin is an expert on the history of slavery – the first clue to the story of a song which unfolds with plenty of built-in tensions and ironies. Do these amount to the paradox Walvin repeatedly claims? I’m not so sure.
There’s pleasure to discovering that the origins of a song one might have placed in the 19th-century American south actually lie in 18th-century Wapping, with one John Newton. An early life of ‘the most horrid impiety and profaneness’ (of which, alas, we hear too little) leads Newton to the docks – first press-ganged into the navy and later finding his métier as a crew member and later captain of Atlantic slave ships.