Shawn Gibbons at the Mad Ripple Hootenanny, 2009. (Photo by Stacy Schwartz.)
Jim Hanneman and Shawn Gibbons at the Mad Ripple Hootenanny, 2009. (Photo by Stacy Schwartz.)

The Mad Ripple Hootenanny This Week: “Amazing Grace”

June 29, 2015

Dear Good People,

Prior to last week, the most unforgettable rendition of “Amazing Grace” I’ve ever heard was delivered by my friend and neighbor and fellow singer, Shawn Gibbons, who reached deep into the history of the song and, with her low and earthy blues-mama voice, sang it with all her heart at the funeral of my mother-in-law, Lorraine Heyer, in 2007.

I’d eulogized Lorraine that day, telling the church of her love of life and her daughters and grandkids, and about the fact that I was lucky to be there when she uttered her last word (“perfect,” in response to ice being swathed on her dying lips), but words often fail and leave too much silence and too many spaces, whereas a song can rise up and unite a room, and hearts, with hot clarity, melody, and meaning; the very definition of holy communion.

Shawnee took a deep breath and sang from her soul that day, summoning all her gathered wisdom as a mother, daughter, wife and friend and soothed a roomful of bereaved people with her gift. She was the picture of grace itself, singing the 251–year-old hymn as an almost happy-go-lucky prayer, because some funerals and losses are easier to bear than others, and Shawn the singer knew the song well enough to realize that this day it couldn’t be a lament or dirge but a toast to a life well-lived via an angelic voice, and a paean to life’s biggest mysteries.

President Barack Obama knew as much about the power of song, and that song in particular, when he delivered his perfectly “imperfect” version at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina last week, which still feels like a miracle. At one of the most historically hopeless moments, the president in the end turned to song and singing and the entire room joined in, as did people in their homes and bars across the world, and hell if we weren’t lifted as a species.

According to Time magazine, “’Amazing Grace’ was written by John Newton, an Englishman who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father who took him to sea when he was 11 (‘I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it,’ he later wrote).

“By 1745, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. At that time he wrote the autobiographical ‘Amazing Grace,’ along with 280 other hymns.”

Obama rocked it in Charleston last week, and I’m thinking we might have to sing it full-bodied at the Hoot some night soon, because God knows wretches like me and you could stand some saving.

Thanks for listening, as always. The Hoots have been so fun and inspiring since we’ve been back at Harriet (THANK YOU ALL) and I keep thinking about Molly Dean singing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” to end the Hoot a couple weeks ago. Heavenly days, yes these are.

See ya at the Hoot.


Amazing Grace

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found.
‘Twas 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.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Then when we first begun.

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.



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