Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published December 1st 2020
A glorious hymn made gloriouser
I am not a religious person. Just thought I would get that out of the way from the word go. I might be spiritual, but I'm not really sure. Now… why admit that? Because I want to point out that nothing like that matters. If something is good and speaks to you, then it does not matter where it comes from. It is why I love church architecture and have taken way too many photos of old church buildings; there is just something about the look of a church that is really nice.
And so we come to this column, another cover versions list, of a song that is inherently religious in nature, and yet one that I really enjoy – 'Amazing Grace'.
The song was written in 1772 by an Englishman named John Newton, a man of no real religious conviction. He was a slaver but got caught in a storm and begged God to be saved. He was, and he wrote this poem, and eventually became a slavery abolitionist. With music added, this poem became a hymn, and I think it might be one of the best known of all time. It is also known as 'New Britain'.
I own many, many versions of this song by various popular music artists. I do enjoy it. A lot. Now, unlike most of my cover lists, I am including live versions here because… well, you'll see.
Now, I will start with a relatively straight forward rendition and one that is very close to the one I first heard, as a person who never missed watching the Edinburgh Tattoo on TV each year. This version is by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and it is the bagpipes version that I will always associate with this song first and foremost.
Staying with the British Isles, Celtic Woman (2010) do a wonderful version with the Celtic instrumentation they are known for, and the vocals that make them so glorious to listen to.
If you want the orchestral version, it is hard to go beyond André Rieu and The Johann Strauss Orchestra (1999), with added bagpipes, just because. But that opening with the penny whistle is beautiful. People put Rieu down, but he has made classical music something to be enjoyed by everyone. I could never hate on the man for that.
Regular readers will know of my love for a cappella, and one band that does that – and has done it for years – that I enjoy a lot is Pentatonix (2020). Again, a straight-forward rendition, but the vocal harmonies, as always, lift this.
Il Divo (2008) are a group of four opera-trained singers who perform contemporary songs so beautifully. I have their first album and think it is vastly under-rated. And their traditionally performed version (sans bagpipes) is just great singing.
Sticking with the harmonies, The Blinds Boys Of Alabama (2001) did their take on it a few times, and each time it was so wonderful, almost becoming a blues number at their hands. Stunning version, and one of my personal favourites.
Next, we come to the Queen of Soul – Aretha Franklin (1972). Her powerful voice just takes this song and lifts it as very few others can. Her ad-libs make the song and it is so wonderful to hear her sing it, harkening back to her gospel roots so effectively.
After the 60s were over, Elvis Presley (1972) found his voice once again and started to produce some of the best work of his career. And this version of the song shows that, yes, the man actually could sing. This is glorious, and that choir behind him is wonderful.
Now, let's start to get into slightly different versions. Yes (1977, not released until 1991) released a really odd fuzztone guitar instrumental version that draws the song effectively into the prog-rock Yes were right in the middle of when it was recorded.
Let's go to something quite Australian now. While, musically, it is still the song we all know and love, Gurrumul & Paul Kelly (2015) used a Yolngu (an Australian Indigenous language) translation of the lyrics to give it a haunting, almost ethereal quality.
Now we come to one of my very favourite versions. Dropkick Murphys (1999) start with the standard piping before going into a great full speed ahead rock instrumental version, though still identifiably the song. Such a great version; this song can go anywhere.
Well, what we seem to be lacking here is country music, so let's go to the country supergroup Maverick Choir (1994), created for the Mel Gibson film Maverick, based on the older TV series of the same name. It works really well as a country track of hope.
The next version is one I found through a friend back in 2013. Mumford & Sons friends (2011) did a live version at a festival that goes on for over 8 minutes and gives everyone on stage a chance to shine at various points. It feels like a version filled with fun. But, word of warning – it's long!
And we will finish with my favourite version: 'Sunlight Shining Through Cloud' by Mike Oldfield (1999). Yes, a different title, taking it from the lyrics, but that is because the music is completely changed up. This is a stunning version with amazing vocals and Oldfield's incredible multi-instrumental musicianship. There is something that feels actually uplifting about this. I love it.
And there we are, 14 versions of one of the most beautiful songs ever composed. It has been over 250 years since it was written, and yet it still brings out the emotions. So well written, and so magnificent.