I was annoyed Tuesday when the Biden-Harris tribute to the 400,000 fallen included that old, mm…, warhorse “Amazing Grace.” I muttered to my wife Andrea Carney, “Well, as long as they don’t trot out ‘Hallelujah’…,” which of course they did. “Amazing Grace” showed up time and again during the inaugural spectacle.
In her introduction to a book about that hymn and its words by former slave trader John Newton, Judy Collins writes that it’s “a song about letting go, bottoming out, seeing the light, turning it over, trusting the universe, breathing in, breathing out, going with the flow […].”1 Obviously it was tailor-made for January 19, the last day of a tyrant’s reign, the American carnage left behind, and the promise of the future, right?
No. Because we haven’t been saved or found at all. Here’s what secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken had to say in his confirmation remarks the afternoon of the memorial:
But for all that has changed, I believe some things remain constant. American leadership still matters. The reality is, the world simply does not organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we’re not leading, then one of two things is likely to happen. Either some other country tries to take our place, but not in a way that’s likely to advance our interests and values, or maybe just as bad, no one does and then you have chaos.
Blinken tried to temper that with platitudes of “humility” and “no single country alone,” but we get the gist. The Old Normal.
Andrea loves “Amazing Grace” and wants it sung at her memorial. It was sung, memorably so, by Barack Obama during his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered in Charleston at his church with eight others during Bible study, by a racist fanatic. When Obama ventured the idea of singing it, Michelle Obama asked, “Why on earth would that fit in?” And I have to ask the same question.
Maybe because her husband, like the slave trader Newton, and like Pinkney’s killer, had a lot of blood on his hands. And power in them. Here’s what CIA torture whistleblower John Kuriakou told Democracy Now! on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration about the president’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence:
We know that Avril Haines, at the [Obama] NSC, was in charge of determining whether it was legal or illegal to place people on John Brennan’s kill list. We know that in almost all cases that she said it was legal to put these names on the kill list, and people were subsequently killed by drone, including American citizens, like Anwar al-Awlaki and his son. They were American citizens who had never been charged with a crime. They had never faced their accusers in a court of law. There was no due process for them. She’s never had to answer for that.
This, mm…, hits kinda close to home. Anwar’s son Abdulrahman was born in Denver, where I live, Anwar in Las Cruces. When asked to answer for it about a year later on the 2012 campaign trail just days before the election, Obama’s former press secretary said:
I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.
A few months before that, Obama was quoted by his chief of staff as saying that the elder Awlaki’s murder was “an easy one” to approve, from that secret kill list.2
There were suggestions at the time that Obama’s killing of sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki—two weeks after the extrajudicial execution of his forty-year-old father—was grounds for impeachment. So much for more recent exclamations, in the Trumpian era, of “If Obama had done thus-and-such….” Protestations of the recent attack on our Temple of Democracy are specious alongside drone strikes against actual temples—mosques—in southwest Asia. Those goons in D.C. on January 6 were attempting extrajudicial executions of American citizens. Like the one that succeeded in Charleston.
“I realize that if I was to recieve [sic] life imprisonment, I would eventually be pardoned.” —Dylann Roof journal
Those were the “easy ones” on their kill lists—by way of an amazing grace, which the dictionary defines as “a manifestation of favor, especially by a superior.”
And so Avril Haines is the first of Biden’s cabinet nominees to be so favored, confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration Day. Only ten opposed it, Republicans all. Which means that Bernie Sanders (at least) must have a porkbarrel project on tap.
A Servant of Slavery
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d ;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d !
Although he was white, John Newton (1725–1807) was once a slave himself. This says a lot about how even the headstrong son of a London shipmaster could be forced into Royal naval service, work on a slaver ship, and wind up a “servant of slaves” in Sierra Leone. Whereby he might have acquired some empathy for human chattel.3 But after being rescued from that bondage in 1748, and praying to the Lord for mercy on the return voyage during a life-threatening storm—the corn of his conversion—, he kept captaining slavers. Newton left the slave trade in 1754, only due to infirmity, while continuing to invest in it.4
“Amazing Grace” wasn’t written by Newton in self reflection after having his appeal answered during a tempest off the Irish coast. He wrote the hymn more than two decades later, in 1772, and long after his 1764 ordination, as a priestly obligation to a parish prayer group. It wasn’t until 1788 that he opposed his former trade in print with his famous pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, which mentions his own enslavement but not his storm-soaked plea.
Music aficionados likely are aware of how Bach wrote hundreds of cantatas for the Lutheran liturgical year. When first I was told this as a chorister, I imagined The Old Wig composing on a Monday for the next Sunday’s worship. Not quite. A list of these 200+ cantatas begins in 1707 and ends in 1748, two years before his death. So too with Newton.
In the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire, Fr. Newton seems to have bonded well with his flock by sermonizing from experience rather than authority, involving himself in their lives rather than remaining aloof. Upon the arrival and influence of poet William Cowper in 1767, the two began writing hymns to present at Newton’s popular prayer meetings.5 Their collaboration would become the Olney Hymns (1779).
Nestled in Book I, On Select Passages of Scripture, is a hymn that takes its inspiration from 1 Chron. 17:16–17 on a theme of Faith’s Review and Expectation, in which the wretch King David begins:
Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?
The hymn contains the first line:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
Thus begins what I’m told is the most popular hymn in the English language. William Cowper likely is not remembered as the author of an equally memorable opener:
God moves in a mysterious way
Like Judy Collins, Joan Baez has a hearth in her heart for “Amazing Grace.” From her memoir Daybreak, her last page and the back flap:
You, Dear Reader—
You are Amazing Grace.
Daybreak was my introduction to the notion of pacifism, as a high schooler of about sixteen in 1971. It’s not in the book, but I remember Baez explaining elsewhere how even the Nazis could have been stopped with nonviolence, citing the apocryphal legend of Danish King Christian X donning the yellow Star of David, in essence declaring, “We are all Jews,” and his compatriots doing the same. Legend or not, I’d hoped that People Have the Power.
And so I was quite disappointed to find that Baez was moved to tears by Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” which YouTube introduced to me via Kronos Quartet and singer Meklit a couple of months ago. My eyes were dry. Because I know Barack’s answer to Michelle’s question: “I think if I sing, the church will sing with me.” Rally ’round.
As much as we are dealing in this country with the truly wretched legacy of slavery, something both Collins and Baez recognize, our enslavement to the military remains a pillar of The Old Normal. In fact, the President Who Sang Amazing Grace ran on a promise to build up military efforts in Afghanistan (a land that has shed intervention and occupation like skin): a servant to our slavery. But was that preeelection pledge enough? My brother Richard and I had a conversation about Obama’s subservience, like that of his predecessors, to the Captains and the Kings (to quote Brendan Beehan via Philip Chevron). Do they ask for an Oval Office visit on January 21, invoking Newton’s “grace that taught my heart to fear”?
Sing Me To the End of Love
Various Positions is the name of the 1984 album on which Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” first appeared. It’s also the title of a more-or-less authorized biography by Canadian critic and academic Ira Nadel, in which “Hallelujah” appears not once.6
The album received critical acclaim, but did anyone really listen to it? “[…] Sony wouldn’t put it out,” Cohen told The Guardian in 2009. “They didn’t think it was good enough.” Indeed, my copy of the LP was made in England, by CBS.
I, for one, was fond of the album’s apocalyptic “If It Be Your Will,” but I didn’t really care for the sweet sentiment of the single “Dance Me to the End of Love.” And I might have reworked a line from “Hallelujah” in one of my own lyrics, but the jubilation in its refrain’s arrangement evidently didn’t resonate with most listeners. Later, two artists infused it with introspection. And without irony. John Cale covered the song with solo piano as the closer to I’m Your Fan, a 1991 Cohen tribute album. Jeff Buckley, evidently charmed by that version, did his own with solo guitar three years later. That album’s title: Grace.
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
(I agree, they don’t care much for music.) And so here’s David again, the wretch at the feet of his Lord. Sidestepping David’s Jonathan (that was in 1 Samuel, not Chronicles), the singer invokes a Jewish king’s infatuation with Bathsheba au bain (that’s in 2 Samuel). It’s the salt-and-vinegar sugar of Leonard Cohen that Judy Collins couldn’t get enough of.
Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Jeff Buckley’s version is racier still:
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
I know that there’s a God above
C’mon people. The song’s about one or several of Cohen’s many carnal conjugations. But because he did so through poetry, employing the H-word along the way, his song—like Newton’s with its G-word—becomes fodder for all manner of communal confabs, including Biden’s Tuesday tribute to those taken by a pitiless plague.8 Somehow I get the feeling that choral conjurings of copulation and being tied to a chair wouldn’t have sat well with prime time viewers. And yet, bowdlerized as it was, the following passage passed under the radar of the purveyors of propriety:
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Maybe, on January 19, 2021, after January 6, 2021, irony is just too compelling. All I’ve ever learned from love is how its expression is best left to poets rather than publicists. And president-select event planners.9
As for the president-reject: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” on his way out the door, Village People’s “YMCA” on his way up the stairs, and Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York” on his way down the strip. A tone deafness that’s pitch perfect.
“Amazing Grace” from
Olney Hymns (New York:
Hodge, Allen & Campbell,
6th Edition, 1790)
- Amazing Grace (New York: Hyperion, 1991, 1).
- “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, 29 May 2012, A13.
- Judy Collins refers (on p. 6) to Newton’s journals and letters as evidence of “his battles with his demons” of drink and rage.
- Judy Collins omits her supplicant’s steadfast slaving likely because it doesn’t fit with the notion of Newton’s repentance. Other biographical details for Newton above and below are taken from various Wikipedia entries for Newton, Amazing Grace, Olney Hymns, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart as well as Newton’s Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.
- Synchronicity being what it is, at about the time that Christopher (Rejoice in the Lamb) Smart was being confined for lunacy, Newton’s fellow poet William Cowper experienced depression that would lead to attempted suicide.
- Ira Nadel, Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen (New York: Pantheon, 1996).
- In Cohen’s 1988 Austin City Limits appearance, only the last of four verses matched those on the 1984 album. For his version Buckley chose three of the old verses and two of the new ones. All seven verses are included in 1993’s Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (Leonard Cohen, New York: Pantheon, 347–348). The Austin City Limits version was released on Cohen Live in 1994. So Buckley easily could have accessed the lyrics during the recording of his album Grace.
- In the Guardian interview cited above, when asked about the popularity of “Hallelujah,” Cohen replies in part, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”
- Like Hillary Clinton before him, Joe Biden was selected—anointed—by the politburo of their party. In the late summer of 2019, when Biden was asked why he was running for president, the New York Times wrote, “Remarkably, after all this time, Mr. Biden stumbles to come up with a clear answer.” Even Dem strategist Dan Pfeiffer remarked, “There is a situation where the electability argument within the context of this primary becomes self-perpetuating.” When asked whether he’d be running if a more conventional Republican were in the White House, Biden replied, “Um, I’m not sure, to be quite honest with you. I hadn’t planned on running again.” In Prole, Iowa, he said, “The longer I’ve been around, the less [being president] appeals to me. I’ve watched up close and personal what eight years in the White House is like.” Jill Biden was quoted at a fundraiser: “We didn’t really intend to be going on this journey. But when it came down to it, too many people were saying, ‘Joe has to run,’ ‘Joe has to run.”’ (See “So Why’s Biden Want This Job? Um, Tough One,” New York Times, 03 Sep 2019, A1.) The election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who ran on a so-called progressive platform rather than playing to the center—in Georgia—, begs the nagging if-only of Bernie-sans-Biden. Sanders the socialist against Trump the centrist.