Sunday, June 29, 2008

Amazing grace, in the key of black

» Cross-posted at Danzig U.S.A. «

Negro Spiritual Singers
Negro Spiritual Singers, from the Works Progress Administration's Federal Music Project, entertained King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the White House, June 8, 1939.
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart


The Negro spiritual is a powerful and influential art form. Through their music and their words, spirituals transformed the tragedy of slavery into an enduring expression of faith, hope, and love.

Among the many beautiful songs within this tradition, Amazing Grace stands out. And how:


Hat tip: Already Not Yet and Rick Ianniello.
Wintley Phipps says he has God on his side, at his back, and in his soul. I am in absolutely no position to question any of that. I come solely to show that Reverend Phipps also has music theory and cultural history in his favor.

Amazing Grace uses a pentatonic scale. Properly spaced, five intervals within any octave are sufficient to generate an astonishing diversity of musical idioms, including Celtic, blues, and Negro spiritual. The belief that the pentatonic scale is the native tonality of children underlies Orff Schulwerk, a method of music education perhaps best known for withholding keys from kids' xylophones.

Piano keysIt's easy to generate a pentatonic scale. You can climb the circle of fifths on a piano. Starting at middle C, this trip yields the note sequence C G D A E. If you have a violin handy, the strings there give you the last four steps in that sequence: G D A E. Rearranging all five notes within a single octave gives you the pentatonic sequence, C D E G A.

Or you can subtract two from seven and yield five. Remove the fourth and seventh scale degrees from the familiar "do-re-mi" diatonic scale — or F and B — and you will reach the same C D E G A sequence.

Most simply, you can follow Reverend Phipps's advice and play just the black keys: G♭ A♭ B♭ D♭ E♭. How sweet the sound.

Finally, as for the cultural history of the Negro spiritual, I am pleased to leave the explanation to The Spirituals Project, whose mission is "[t]o preserve and revitalize the music and teachings of the sacred songs called 'spirituals,' created and first sung by enslaved Africans in America in the 18th and 19th centuries":


Editor's note: This Spirituals Project video presents an excerpt from I Can Tell the World, a new documentary by Larry Bograd and Coleen Hubbard.

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