How Sweet the Sound

It must be the most well-known hymn in the world and it begins this way:

Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.


Throughout the sorrowful months following Sept. 11, 2001, we heard the bagpipes play this haunting melody in funeral after funeral for fallen New York firefighters and police officers.

"Amazing Grace" has appeared on more than 1,100 albums, performed by secular and religious artists alike. In Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song, Steve Turner tells us the hymn reflects the spiritual autobiography of an Anglican priest and abolitionist named John Newton.

As a young man, Newton was a ship's captain involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In time, he had a conversion experience, married and was ordained in the Church of England. Eventually, he became a vocal advocate of abolishing slavery.

Newton's diverse experience produced a hymn with an evolving message, which Turner details.

The lyrics eventually crossed the Atlantic and were set to the now-familiar tune by a singing teacher in South Carolina. It was used in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Gospel singers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland sang it to affirm the Christian faith -- and it became a fixture at funeral services.

In the turbulent 60s, folk singers such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger attached it to the civil rights movement. And Judy Collins and Aretha Franklin's efforts turned it into a successful pop standard. The famed Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were the first to record it for the bagpipes.

Turner provides the reader with a thorough discography of "Amazing Grace," as well as a roster of the artists who have recorded it. He also lists major motion pictures in which the song plays a role, and adds short biograhies of those involved with its evolution and performance.

Judy Collins offers an introduction to Turner's Amazing Grace, writing in part: "In the months since the tragedy of 9/11, the song has even more poignancy and beauty... The melody itself is haunting and healing, even without the transforming words... Steve Turner has given us a gift -- the story of the foundation from which this flower of music and healing has sprung."