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The Invulnerable Amazing Grace

The Invulnerable Amazing Grace

Associate Editor

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Not that long ago, we were talking with Sherwood Goffin (see story here), the wonderful chazzan at Lincoln Square Synagogue, about the problem of amateurs who, when leading services, freely staple niggunim (spiritual melodies), or beautiful popular Israeli songs, such as Erev Shel Shoshanim, or even Puff The Magic Dragon, to verses of the davening without any regard to how appropriate the particular tune might be to the verse.

Some parts of davening are best left alone. Dare I say it, all of us would hope that no chazzan would, when singing Kol Nidrei, try to do something clever with it.

These mistakes are often heard in summer camps, where davening is almost always led by teenagers who rarely have been educated about the “inside baseball” of nusach. The problem has been exacerbated by the explosion of “Carlebach minyans,” which has convinced some folks that davening is a campfire at which to sing your favorite songs, a greatest hits concert, which is never how Shlomo Carlebach himself led davening.

It was a serious conversation with Cantor Goffin but I now bring it up just for fun. We are not alone. It has become a running joke in some (Protestant) Christian camps to see how many rock songs, or silly sing-a-long songs, you can fit to the most serious of hymns, such as “Amazing Grace.” That august hymn, it turns out, can be mangled around the campfire to “House of the Rising Sun” or “Stairway to Heaven.” Try it. (To yourself, please).

On Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor pointed out that “Amazing Grace” could be sung, with some help, to the “Mickey Mouse Club March.”

Try it:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Amazing Grace (Amazing Grace!) Amazing Grace (Amazing Grace!) Forever let us hold our banner high (high, high, high) A-M-A-Z I-N-G G-R-A-C-E”

Some wise guys have even sung “Amazing Grace” to the theme from “Gilligan’s Island.”

Try it:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.

Now try to get the original majestic melody back in your brain.

Of course, as is the case with all prayer, the words – said to have been based on a prayer by King David-are immune from the ravages of summer camp and can be simply read in the quiet of a soul or a subway car.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, Will be forever mine.

There’s no way to ruin a prayer when you really mean it. All that’s lost will, in the end, be found; all fears, at last, relieved.

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