'Amazing Grace' a noteworthy special

September 12, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

If you want to know why Bill Moyers has retreated to the lofty confines of PBS, look no further than the 90 minutes he has on tonight.

While the commercial networks scramble for high ratings amid increasing competition and have their news personnel searching for the hottest topic for some cutting edge documentary, Moyers gets to do 90 minutes about a hymn.

"Amazing Grace," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 8 o'clock, is a wonderful piece of television, carefully filmed, excellently recorded, sensitively edited.

It tells of the song of its title, which broke out of its Baptist church confines in the late 1960s when singers like Judy Collins and Joan Baez included it in their repertoire.

Though it has been identified with the simple, more fundamental denominations, its origins go back to England's Anglican church. Though it is often considered a black spiritual, it was written by a man who sailed a boat in the slave trade, its words expressing his sentiments about leaving behind a life he despised and turning to his work in the church.

The words of James Newton, written around 1760, put to a tune of unknown origin, are heard sung in the incomparable tones of opera's Jessye Norman and in the bittersweet harmonies of a Texas prison chorale; with the crystal clarity of Collins and the rustic resonance of Jean Ritchie; as an upbeat gospel tune by Marion Williams, as a polished gem by the Boys Choir of Harlem, as a homespun harmony by the so-called shape note singers of the rural South.

But whoever the singer, whatever the audience, it is clear that the combination of these straightforward yet profound lyrics and that gentle but deep melody has a decided effect on both, as it must have once had on a young boy growing up singing it and listening to it in the Baptist church his native Texas named Bill Moyers.

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