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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

The Enduring Power of 'Amazing Grace' and What It Says About American Unity

 January 26, 2021 at 12:04 PM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 In his inauguration speech, president Joe Biden called for bringing unity to what we all know is a deeply hurt, deeply divided country, right after the president spoke country music, star Garth Brooks saying amazing grace, and maybe more than any other popular song. Amazing grace has become a source of strength for many of our countries, presidents, when things get tough, KQ, EDS, arts and culture, reporter Cole, Veltman spoke to a number of California artists with strong ties to the song about its enduring power and what all of us, including our leaders can learn from its message. Speaker 2: 00:37 For years. There's been this link between amazing grace and us presidents, all along the political spectrum. Speaker 3: 00:46 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 00:47 The bagpipes at Ronald Reagan's funeral, Jimmy Carter, bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all called the him a favorite. And no one can forget that moment in Charleston, South Carolina in June, 2015, when Barack Obama took the song to another level Speaker 3: 01:15 [inaudible], Speaker 2: 01:15 But then president's broke into song in the middle of his eulogy for state, Senator and church, pastor Clementa pink Speaker 3: 01:33 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 01:33 Pinckney. Along with eight members of his congregation had been gunned down at their church by a white supremacist. Earlier that month, it was the latest in a spate of mass shootings motivated by racial hatred. Speaker 3: 01:52 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 01:52 That moment the president responded to the massacre by singing the song. Amazing. Grace is considered one of the most powerful of his years in office so much. So it inspired a new song. Speaker 3: 02:03 The president came to speak some and the cameras Speaker 2: 02:11 Just days after Donald Trump was elected president in November, 2016. Focusing as Zoe Mulford wrote the president sang amazing grace. Many Americans were still reeling from the events in Charleston the previous year. Speaker 3: 02:26 Good. Say what Speaker 2: 02:32 Mulford song lyrics, where no words could say what must be said for all the living and the dead reflect back to a president who in her mind was able to connect with people in their grief. Speaker 3: 02:48 The presidents [inaudible] Speaker 2: 02:55 Radio stations across the country picked up the song. One pretty famous focusing. I happened to be listening while driving near her home in the San Francisco Bay area. When I first heard it, I had to pull the car over because I started crying. That's Joan Byers and she told NPR, hearing that song inspired her to make her own version Speaker 3: 03:15 Came to a house [inaudible] Speaker 2: 03:23 Yeah. Buyer's is singing the song on tour in Paris in 2018, where she wraps up her performance with words about how much she missed president Obama. He wasn't perfect, but he was a Speaker 3: 03:41 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 03:41 Right now we have nothing. And the president sang amazing. Grace kept going. It inspired a California publisher to commission a children's book. And in those final frosts weeks leading up to last November's presidential election, this video hit my inbox. Speaker 3: 04:09 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 04:12 It features San Francisco's Kronos quartet and Ethiopian American vocalists McLean Cordero. Obama's singing of amazing grace in Charleston was a moment. McLean says when Americans were faced with a choice, Speaker 4: 04:24 Where are we going to choose this path of racist, white supremacist leadership that encourages the darkest parts of American history to wield their guns? Or where are we going to choose the possibility of something else? Speaker 2: 04:39 Well, my cleats president Obama's decision to sing amazing. Grace spoke to his willingness to be vulnerable. Speaker 4: 04:45 We don't want our presidents to do that. And yet those can be the moments where we connect as human beings to each other. And so why not have a president that can do that? Speaker 3: 05:20 [inaudible] [inaudible] Speaker 2: 05:21 Amazing. Grace has traveled far and wide since English clergyman. John Newton wrote the lyrics in 1772. It's unclear. What if any music he used when he invoked it as part of a sermon, but amazing grace traveled across the Atlantic where it was enthusiastically picked up by Baptist and Methodist preachers. Eventually the words were paired with a tune. We associate them with today. Speaker 3: 05:48 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 05:48 The song took root in the black church where it's been sung across generations. Speaker 4: 05:53 Now amazing grace for us. I, it is a Speaker 3: 05:58 Traditional song, always been a landmark for black America and black church. Speaker 2: 06:05 Margaret pleasant. Durham is a gospel music composer choir director, and long-time member of the greater new Bethel Baptist church in Inglewood. Speaker 3: 06:25 [inaudible] [inaudible] Speaker 2: 06:27 I'm a little bit or struck when Margaret tells me she was in the audience the day Aretha Franklin recorded her iconic take on amazing grace in Los Angeles in 1972, Margaret says it was hard not to sing along with the queen of soul. Speaker 3: 06:44 You just join right in. Especially if we know the song, somebody is going to be singing with Aretha Franklin [inaudible] Speaker 2: 06:55 And Margaret says, there's no song, quite like amazing grace for capturing the black Christian experience. Speaker 3: 07:01 But amazing grace means something helped us. It was grace that brought us St this far, and grace will lead us on [inaudible] Speaker 2: 07:20 Amazing. Grace connects deeply with the black church community, but the song has also reached millions of others outside the church, because it speaks so eloquently about rebirth and redemption. Speaker 3: 07:31 I'm sober now 43 years. And the amazing thing is that I ever got sober. It's total grace Speaker 2: 07:38 Focusing, uh, Judy Collins spent part of her childhood in LA. She released her version of amazing grace in 1970, while struggling with alcohol addiction. Speaker 3: 07:58 [inaudible] powerful song, which reaches all kinds of people of every race, denomination, religious persuasion, color character. It doesn't matter who you are. Once you hear me. [inaudible] Speaker 2: 08:26 Many artists with California connections have taken the song in completely new directions like drag theater, performer, Taylor Mack, by the way, Taylor uses the pronoun Judy, as in Judy Garland, not Judy Collins. So in any case, Taylor has unhappy memories of being forced to sing the hymn at Christian science church as a kid growing up in Stockton. Speaker 3: 08:49 Oh, it wasn't exactly the most soulful rendition. And I can't say that I was particularly drawn to the song at all, but Speaker 2: 09:03 Tyler eventually came around to the side. Speaker 3: 09:14 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 09:14 Dressed in teetering platform heels, a fantastical headpiece festooned with tinsel and a glittering boop dress. Taylor performed a minor key version as the opening number in a mammoth stage production chronicling the history of American popular music. Speaker 3: 09:34 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 09:34 The critically acclaimed show debuted right before the 2016 elections and toward the U S through much of the Trump presidency, Speaker 3: 09:42 It became kind of a prayer for grace for the country. It stopped being about, um, God, for me, in the Trump years, it became this beautiful way to start the show and say, Hey, we're, we're all praying for actual grace. Um, [inaudible] Speaker 2: 10:09 Our country needs grace so much right now between the racially motivated killings. One of the most contentious elections in us history and the recent assault on the nation's Capitol, it's been horrific and the COVID-19 pandemic has further driven people apart. Um, in fact, Laurie Murray, K a nurse on the front lines of the health crisis sang amazing grace. It's an inauguration week Memorial service for the more than 400,000 Americans. We've lost to the virus Speaker 3: 10:44 Through civil war. The great depression world war nine 11 through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks are better. Angels have always prevailed Speaker 2: 10:56 In his inauguration speech. President Joe Biden echoed the core message of amazing grace Speaker 3: 11:01 In each of these moments are enough of us are enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward. And we can do that. Now. History, faith reason show the way, the way of you Speaker 2: 11:21 In a dramatic moment towards the end of his rendition of amazing grace country music, star golf Brooks reinforced the president's call for unity. Speaker 3: 11:30 Can I ask you to sing this last verse with me? Not just the people here, but the people at home at work as one United, uh, Speaker 2: 11:42 Of course, all of us singing amazing grace together won't solve this country's problems, but maybe it's a good place to start. Speaker 3: 11:49 Whoa, for the California reports. I'm Chloe Veltman [inaudible].

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The Enduring Power of 'Amazing Grace' and What It Says About American Unity TEASE: After President Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, country music star Garth Brooks sang “Amazing Grace.” California artists sound off on the song’s enduring power, and what all of us, including our leaders, can learn from its message.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments