John Newton, William Walker, arr. Victor Wooten: Amazing Grace

"...sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man - and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But... aw, hell. I've done introduced him enough."
The Stranger, The Big Lebowski (1998)

Recalcitrant insubordination could be a phrase that might appear in the vast cumulative folders of many students throughout history.  Often when browsing Wikipedia, one is given to attempt to stay coherent through the drawling sentences, written to emulate and perhaps propagate a tone befitting a most verbose tome of the world's knowledge.  It can get a bit dry.  But every so often someone will throw out a certain combination of words that will catch my attention.  In this case it was in an article regarding the brain child of John Newton (1725–1807) who was responsible for creating the combination of words known to many people as "Amazing Grace".  

The article touched on the fact that Mr. Newton had an issue with people who were in a position to tell him what to do.  In schools today, it might be called "Oppositional Defiant Disorder".  You might notice a theme here, that I'm fairly certain has no correlation whatsover, but is interesting none-the-less.  "Recalcitrant" describes an individual who possesses a difficulty when confronted with authority and particularly with following the instructions given by such authority.  Uncooperative is a word that is associated with it, while insubordination is the act of willful disobedience, occasionally with an axe to grind.  Both words are similar enough ways of describing the same trait or personality. It's almost like saying a color is "red red", but with more letters involved.  

By the same token "Oppositional Defiant" is a similar concept, but with- what I feel anyway- is less flowery.  It sounds like something you'd hear in an office as a supervisor is going over employee #2458's personnel file.  "Well, you didn't share the copier with Pete last week, and then you proceeded to staple his tie to the door as you kicked over the water cooler.  I'm sensing some oppositional defiance from you this quarter, Greg."

So the story goes that John Newton was a bit of a renegade and had led a life (as so described by Wikipedia) of recalcitrant insubordination.  Now, in the mid-1700's when Mr. Newton lived, England had a very equitable way of guaranteeing that they had a strong, well-manned Navy.  Each time in port when they needed to acquire more sailors (because the other ones had either run off or died from boredom or malaria) they would task a highly skilled militia with encouraging young men of age to come live a care-free life of ease on the open seas.  This often involved threatening one's life with big sticks and frequently employed blunt force trauma to the head to initiate unconsciousness which would put a prospective sailor in no frame of mind to debate the merits of what was tantamount to indentured servitude.   

Mr. Newton was one such sailor and following his career in the Queen's navy he began working for the Atlantic Slave Trade which meant Newton would be helping to transport actual indentured servants to work unendingly in the English colonies.  As fate would have it, his ship was struck by a fearful storm and like a college student who promises never to drink again whilst in the throes of alcohol-induced vomiting, Newton vowed to take up a life of Christianity should God grant him mercy.  Now, unlike most college drunkards, Newton remained affected and as his ship was in for repairs following the storm he wrote the first verse to the tune we know now as "Amazing Grace".

Eventually, he would be ordained in the Anglican Church and become a curate, working alongside William Cowper who was a fellow poet and hymnodist in Olney which is about 60 miles from London.  The pair were responsible for publishing a number of hymns, but Amazing Grace was written for New Year's sermon in 1773 and quietly forgotten for some time.  We don't rightly know if the text was set to music at this point, but it was eventually published in 1779 and would remain under the radar until the Second Great Awakening in the US around the beginning of the 19th century.  It wasn't until 1835 when it was set to the tune "New Britain" by William Walker (1809-1875).  Now Walker was a composer, but he was not responsible for "New Britain", only setting the words to the melody.  That tune was part of the British oral tradition and while there are a few possible leads from similar folk music, the original author cannot be satisfactorily verified.  

William Walker was the author of a choral education book called "Southern Harmony", in which this incarnation of "Amazing Grace" first appeared.  The early 1800's in the burgeoning United States, music education was being handled most apparently by the churches, and in the southern US particularly the Baptist church.  Walker used the tradition of shape notes, which was a simplified notation system used to indicate a note's pitch (flat, natural, sharp) by changing the shape of the notehead.  

American churches are often considered the soil in which music education flourished in our country, and as a result these songs tend to occupy a place in the American psyche to this day.  Now "Amazing Grace" originally was set to a number of different melodies, and since Mr. Walker's pairing with "New Britain" it has been arranged into what I can only guess is an insane amount of different pieces of music.  Searching YouTube for various versions of the tune would fill an afternoon, but today I will share just one version that is uniquely special to me as it is performed on one of my favorite instruments and by one of my favorite musicians.  

We have discussed Victor Wooten before in the context of his band, the Flecktones.  But the man is an amazing solo musician as well, being the preeminent virtuosic bassists alive today.  He has an understanding and a capacity to the instrument that can be often emulated and observed, but infrequently duplicated.  Victor holds an annual summer music and nature camp where he teaches lessons about playing electric bass to students of all ages and also shares his philosophy about nature and his Zen outlook on life.  

My favorite part about watching any virtuoso perform is the transformation that occurs in their countenance as they practice their art.  Victor Wooten is certainly no exception.  He takes on a new persona as he works the melody from his instrument, stretching its musicality to the zenith as he crafts something that cannot be adequately expressed through word alone.  

I identify with John Newton.  I never liked being told what to do, particularly when I thought what I was told to do was stupid or pointless.  I regularly found myself in predicaments based off those choices that made life more challenging as a result, and I think we all have a taste of that at one time or another.  

He chose...poorly.
But I think the journey to redemption is, if nothing else, as important as the destination itself. Without the cause, there is no effect and without John Newton's "recalcitrant insubordination", we might not have ever had a wretch to be saved in the first place.  

See you next Friday.