The Power & Pathos of the Pentatonic scale

Or, as Wentley Phipps puts it elsewhere in this Gaither/Homecoming appearance, where he tells a story about the black-and-white origins of “Amazing Grace,” “just the black notes.” If you haven’t already seen it, it’s worth watching, especially for his evocative lecture/sermon/set up. I have no idea how solid his music history or musicology is, but it’s a great story.

And: this may be the first time that Gaither has gotten such a high-profile billing on one of the blogosphere’s most-read blogs. Granted, Sullivan doesn’t seem to know what he’s dealing with, but then that could be said of most outsiders’ encounter with gospel music, no?

Spoiler: For those who don’t mind reality getting in the way of Phipps’ fantasy, see David Bruce Murray’s fact-checking on the “Amazing” story Phipps tells.

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Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Musicscribe Blog » An “Amazing” Yarn! on 21 Apr 2008 at 3:22 pm

    […] copying and pasting a response I made to a recent Doug Harrison post. Doug ran across the “too good not to pass along” YouTube video of Wentley Phipps […]


  1. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    John Newton was converted to Christianity in 1748, when he gave up his slave trading. The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” were written in 1772…24 years later. John Newton died in 1807. The tune (New Brittain) was first associated with the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” in the 1830s in an American tune book.

    For more info, see:

    When you consider that short of using a time machine, John Newton wasn’t alive to heard his lyrics sung to the tune we now associate with “Amazing Grace,” it’s pretty obvious that there is no history to back up Phipps’ yarn. At best, Phipps himself was duped and passed the story along out of ignorance. At worst, he made it up whole cloth and tried to dupe the rest of us. He tells a good story, but it’s the sort of story that belongs on

    As a matter of fact, there is an “Amazing Grace” article on with some good background information…though it doesn’t address the Phipps fable directly.

    Another aspect of Phipps’ tale that is humorous is his attempt to associate a single race with the pentatonic scale. How convenient that on the piano the notes happen to be black! The fact of the matter is that the pentatonic scale is commonly used in many forms of folk music…be it Asian, white or black based folk music. It’s a universally accepted musical scale.

  2. irishlad wrote:

    I remember watching Mr Phipps’ histronic performance-worthy of a golden globe at least- when the video was released and thinking to myself how ott it was but hey, 10/10 for a superb master class in theatrical drama.

  3. irishlad wrote:

    #2 histronic should have read histrionic. Sorry.

  4. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Yes, you have to watch out for those typos when you’re exposing fiction posing as fact. People will dismiss your efforts as meaningless if one letter is out of place.

  5. C.W. G. wrote:

    I say, give the guy a break - he didn’t say that much that would indicate that he was trying to dupe anyone - and sometime to make a true story interesting in the telling , you have to add some color - and I don’t think anyone could have done it better.

  6. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    The entire point of his story is tied to John Newton hearing a slave sing a melody to which he set the words of “Amazing Grace.”

    That goes beyond “adding color.”

    (I’m ignoring the racial undertones of that statement.)

  7. Mark Rhoads wrote:

    I posted the following on David Murray’s blog. It’s pertinent for this conversation as well:

    We love to hear romanticized and often fabricated stories of how hymns and tunes came into being. Mr. Phipps’ “yarn” fits this description precisely. Yarns about origins make us feel good, but our greatest source of genuine feeling should the words of this hymn which contain the truth of the Gospel.

    In reality the origin of most hymns and tunes is rather mundane. “Amazing Grace” was one of hundreds of hymns (he only wrote the words) Newton wrote and published in Olney Hymns 1779. It was barely known in England until the mid 20th century. From the early 19th and well into the 20th century American revivalists found it useful and sang it to a number of different tunes until we finally settle on the now familiar tune called NEW BRITAIN. David has referred to my website which documents some of the story. Here’s the home page

  8. Mary wrote:

    How extraordinary this video was. I, too, researched the pantatonic scale and saw that a variety of nationalities used it. However, Mr. Phipps didn’t claim that it was originated by the blacks, only that the slaves used it. I for one, felt chills as he described the crying of the slaves in the holds of the ships. Who knows if whoever authored “New Britain” had heard this slave chant or not. Amazing Grace is one of the hymns that are the backbone of our Christian heritage, and I for one am glad to embrace this theory of its origin. By the way, I am white! And I am glad the captive slaves are now free!!!

  9. Chosen1 wrote:

    Thank you Mary.

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