Amazing lesson in music | The Daily Record


I always loved Vacation Bible School.

Each summer our preacher, Mr. Billy Webb, would paint the church bus white.

On the first night, Mr. Billy poured paints of all colors into 5-gallon buckets. He told us to choose a color, drip our hands deep into the bucket and then put a hand print on the bus.

I dipped my left hand in one bucket and right hand in another.

Soon, our hand prints were all over the bus — the side, back door and Mr. Billy helped some of us climb onto the hood.

After we finished, our teachers helped us clean our hands while Mr. Billy sang his favorite hymn “Amazing Grace.” His silky, smooth baritone voice filled the air while we tried to join him unison.

That’s not easy when you’re a kid with a squeaky voice.

My mom had an angelic voice and loved to sing gospel music.

A majority of her vinyl albums fell into that genre and she always watched the TV show “Gospel Jubilee” before she and I went to church each Sunday. Most of the time she hummed what she heard that morning during our short drive to Pinetops Baptist Church.

Like Mr. Billy, “Amazing Grace” was her favorite song.

There’s an interesting story behind the hymn, which musicologists consider as the most famous white spiritual ever written.

True, it was penned by a white person — John Newsome.

After leaving the Royal Navy, he got involved in the Atlantic slave trade and served as captain of a slave ship. A dangerous storm off the coast of Ireland battered the vessel and he called out to God for mercy.

Newton studied Christian theology, became an abolitionist and was later ordained in the Church of England. He wrote the multi-verse spiritual that lets us know forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sin we committed.

There’s more to this story.

If you look up “Amazing Grace” in the Library of Congress, Newton is given credit for writing the hymn. However, the melody is described as “unknown.”

That’s because one of the South’s most-popular spirituals is played on the pentatonic scale — the five black keys on the piano that repeat themselves. It’s also known as the “slave scale.”

A majority of Negro spirituals originated from that scale.

Listen to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and Nat King Cole’s creation of “Every Time I Feel The Spirit.” No matter which set of five black keys you play, each note is on point with the sheet music.

I was a music major during my freshman year at East Carolina.

The summer before my sophomore year, I discovered that journalism was my calling. I’ve been involved in the profession for nearly four decades.

However, music remains an integral part of my life because of Mr. Billy and my mom. If you ever listen to my iPhone, you’ll discover I have an eclectic taste that covers every decade of my life.

America is currently divisive and filled with rage and violence.

However, regardless of our skin color, we should remember we are all connected by God’s amazing grace.

Newton proves that theory.

Rudy Coggins can be reached at rcoggins@mydailyrecord.com.

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