I put this list together as I was listening to some of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's music in anticipation of their Detroit appearance Feb. 19 at the Magic Bag. Their version of "Amazing Grace" is so short but sweet it got me to thinking what other versions of this song do not suck. Even if you never listen to gospel music, it's OK if you're sick to death of the 18th century hymn "Amazing Grace." Nine times out of nine, the thing is performed in a way that's treacly at best.
The hymn itself has an interesting history, though. It was written around 1765 by John Newton, the abused servant of a slave trader who later became the captain of a slave ship himself. The self-taught Newton had not previously been a religious man, but was converted after a terrible storm at sea where he found himself begging God for mercy. "Amazing Grace" is thought to have been written for one of Newton's sermons; the music's melody was added later, and was probably taken from a slave song.
1. The Gospel Entertainers
This rare 1970s recording on the un-mess-with-able Nashville-based label Champ by Arthur Davis and the Gospel Entertainers takes the hymn and stretches it out with an organ-driven vamp that weaves around a slow, snaking guitar line. You won't even realize it's the hymn until it gets to the chorus. It's a great arrangement, and thank goodness it's on the YouTubes.
2. Blind Boys of Alabama
The Blind Boys of Alabama's 2003 version, from a disc called Amazing Grace, updates the tune with a bluesy lead guitar that never overpowers, in an interesting take that resets the hymn to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun."
3. John Fahey
Fahey revolutionized the acoustic guitar as a solo instrument with his recordings from the '60s (as well as with his own indie record label, Takoma). He also recorded sacred songs throughout his career; several of his best-selling records were Christmas albums. Fahey recorded the song on his 1971 LP America.
4. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Very short but just as sweet, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's take is from the Funeral for a Friend album, itself an engaging tribute to the funeral music tradition of New Orleans.
5. Sons of the San Joaquin
Now here's something else you don't hear every day — "Amazing Grace" as a super sincere, old-school cowboy ballad with strings and harmonica. They recorded it in 2004 for their Gospel Trails CD.
6. Blind Willie McTell
The Georgia blues legend was recorded in 1940 for the Library of Congress. His take is so powerful that only half a line of spoken lyric is enough to convey the entire redemptive message. McTell describes it a tune they "used to hum back in the days when they'd be picking cotton."