Music: Traditional, Arranged by William Walker
Lyrics: John Newton
Original Artist: Traditional
Historian: Ellis Godard (lemuria)
John Newton's "Amazing Grace” is something like a musical version of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Beneath the guise of mass appeal and popular imagery, both writers expressed complex convictions and helped foment intense insurgency. Paine’s pamphlet was more explicitly political, weaving the needs of a developing democracy into emotional challenges to pride and patriotism. While explicitly religious on the surface, Newton’s song also addressed the direction of a new nation. Written in the same era as the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, it spoke to reprieve from persecution as well as from purgatory. No surprise, then, that it regained popularity throughout the South during Reconstruction after the Civil War.
For Phish, the subtleties take another route, not concealing politics behind religion, but evoking a religiosity not explicit in shows or the interaction between band and fans. On special occasions such as Halloween (10/31/94), New Year’s Eves (12/31/93, 12/31/94, 12/31/96), special events (Clifford Ball opening, 8/16/96) or some tour closers (e.g. 7/3/95), its lyrics stand on their own: Here, the band declares, we have reached one of those epiphanies for which we strive, a graceful escape from wayward distractions. Such appearances acknowledge the transformative power of music, and make sacred the ritual of cooperative attention towards and from the stage.
Phish, "Amazing Grace" – 10/31/94, Glens Falls, NY
That is not to imply that large or event shows necessarily have more sanctity. Another common fan interpretation of the relevance of the lyrics for Phish centers on the “as when I first begun” lyrics, pointing to the perpetually maintained integrity of the band amid the zany popular growth of the Phish phenomenon. Moreover, appearances have not always been sacred. The debut (1/28/93) was near sacrilege, in the Boston Hard Rock Cafe, a commercial center of celebrity, following a ceremony in which Fishman donated his vacuum to the venue’s memorabilia collection. And banality diminished sanctity, as the song was performed nearly 60 more times that year alone, opening, closing, or constituting dozens of encores. There were nearly as many performances the next year, including one sandwiched inside “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” (5/16/94) and three paired in an encore with “Highway to Hell.” Appearances have petered off since, with only 16 versions in 1995, and only 6 in 1996. After a 115-show absence the song was performed at the Farm Aid benefit on 10/3/98, and has not been heard from since.
Versions are memorable largely for their placement, capping off strong or otherwise memorable shows. But three are notable for the performances themselves: 12/31/96 included the Boston Community Choir, 5/8/93 was instrumental to a “Weekapaug”-like beat, and 11/30/96 was followed by an instrumental reprise. The latter two seem particularly ironic: the switch to a diminished chord in the next-to-last verse seems to contradict the melody’s soaring message, but the return to the regular melody in the last verse is doubly powerful because of it. These turns were particularly dramatic without words.
Although the lyrics would seem to connect well with various aspects of the band's five-year hiatus (begun in 2004) and 2009 return, Phish has not performed "Amazing Grace" in over a decade.