Amazing grace, how sweet the sound … as made by a pol like me?
First it was President Obama, who surprised mourners at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was shot to death last month in his church in South Carolina, by breaking into song.
Other mourners, first stunned, then delighted, stood spontaneously to join the President in singing the seemingly timeless hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
Now, from the other side of the political aisle, comes Republican Condoleezza Rice. The former secretary of state, a classically trained pianist, has recorded an instrumental version of the song with violinist Jenny Oates Baker.
The video for the song is interspersed with scenes of American troops, both on the battlefield and being laid to rest.
The hymn was published in 1779, written by John Newton, an English poet and clergyman. Newton became involved in the slave trade, and he was inspired to write the song after being caught at sea in a terrible storm.
The opening line, with its apparent reference to original sin, showed his gratitude at having survived: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me!”
Hymn recorded countless times
In time, the song became a standard, particularly in historically black churches in the United States.
Beyond that, it has been recorded countless times, by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash.
Politicians rarely sing in public for fear of embarrassing themselves. But Obama may have broken that barrier in 2012 when he sang the opening lines of Al Green’s hit “Let’s Stay Together” — in the presence of Green himself, no less.
And “Amazing Grace” seems to be a hymn with universal appeal, with the power to move people no matter their beliefs or circumstances.
There seems rare agreement that both Obama and Rice did well by the hymn. Obama’s breaking into the song in the church where Pinckney preached and where he died seemed pitch-perfect — just right for the occasion.
And the version by Rice and Baker tugs at the heartstrings, as well, with the last dying note of Baker’s violin having the power, even, to bring a tear to the eye.
How sweet the sound indeed.