"Gospel music is hymns," my Gospel-style piano teacher told me. An amazing musician, he held two bachelor degrees in music from Jackson State, and was the music director emeritus of a large African-American church in Chicago. His statement, out of context, might have raised a few questions, but I knew what he meant.
Of course black Gospel music is more than the Reformation-based, European SATB songs of the 16th through the 20th century. Black Gospel has had plenty of its own great composers that have written using the structure of hymnody (e.g. Thomas Dorsey, Andrae Crouch, Richard Smallwood). However, I think a point that my teacher was making was that congregants of African-American churches do additionally connect with certain hymns written by non-black composers (e.g. Fanny Crosby), and that there are hymns that can also sound really powerful when there's some "Gospel flavor" added. So, I'd like to continue the conversational blog series about such hymns.
"Amazing Grace," as a hymn, is extremely well-known and needs no introduction. But long before I personally understood the importance of multicultural worship and had tasted the depth of musical goodness that is black Gospel music, my favorite version of "Amazing Grace" was its black Gospel rendition.
About two years ago, a worship director on America's East Coast asked me how to play a hymn Gospel-style. I used "Amazing Grace" on a piano, and showed her how to move from the common 3-4 part harmony and simple bass line to harmonic embellishments and a walking bass. This hymn is ripe with such opportunities and its black Gospel rendition remains my favorite version.