Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 5, 2024

How sweet the sound

In March 1997, husband Art's best friend Bill died. His final illness was somewhat lengthy, not very pleasant, and one where the outcome was certain. So his death was seen as a blessing by many, making the mood at his funeral a bit more upbeat than otherwise might have been the case.

The remembrance card each mourner received was what one might expect, with the exception that the back page contained not just the words to the last song, but the music as well.

Because Art likes to sing, it wasn't surprising that several times that evening he revisited it. Daughter Mariya, then 11, had taken up the trumpet in school. She surprised Art when she commented that she thought she could play it. Art mentioned he had the music, gave her the memorial program and, after a couple of false starts, the familiar notes started emanating from her bedroom. She went through it a couple of additional times.

As a result of my first husband Jerome's death and my later marriage to Art, Mariya had more than the usual number of grandparents. But in the fall of 1997, Jerome's mom Rita died. As we were getting in the car to go to the funeral, Mariya asked whether she could take her trumpet along and play the song at her grandmother's service.

A flood of emotions came over me. Since both Mariya and I are introverts, I immediately put myself in her shoes. I couldn't imagine inviting the attention of all those who would gather. And if her effort was less than perfect - a quite reasonable possibility considering the situation - some of the mourners might take exception to her being given the opportunity. Still, most of us struggle to give something truly personal and meaningful at such a time and her offer couldnít have been more fitting.

Art suggested she get her trumpet, but we would wait for grandpa Ken to make the call. This would allow Mariya to think about what she had proposed on the several-hour journey to the funeral. If she concluded her suggestion had been made in haste, she could withdraw it without the extended family knowing.

She stayed steady in her offer and Ken accepted it.

When the time came, Mariya got up before the group, apparently activating that mask we introverts wear at times when we have to be "on." She was one who, if she started on tune, would stay on tune. And she did! She later told me she was nervous, although she seemed cool as a cucumber at the time.

As with Bill, we knew Rita's death was coming, so people, including Ken, had somewhat made peace with it. But as Mariya played, Ken, who was sitting nearby, began to quietly sob. Through his emotions and in a quiet voice, he apologized, saying he had pretty well kept it together until Mariya began to play.

She finished and the service went on. It proved to be a good one with seeing people we hadnít seen for a while and much chatting over a nice lunch.

So why am I relating this story of 26 years ago? Because I recently learned that New Year's was the 250th anniversary of the first public performance of "Amazing Grace" - the piece Mariya played for her grandma.

Mariya wasn't the only one to perform it at a family funeral. Youngest daughter Katie sang it at both mom's and uncle Stan's memorial services. Her experience in Kansas State University's concert choir and an a capella group, coupled with her music degree training, meant her renditions were executed beautifully.

Another family connection was Art's and my 2006 visit to Olney, England, the village famous for its Cowper and Newton Museum, which celebrates the lives of two local residents, William Cowper (1731-1800) and John Newton (1725-1807). Together, Cowper, a celebrated poet, and Newton, a slave-trader-turned-abolitionist and beloved curate of the local church, penned the Olney Hymns, including "Amazing Grace."

The Library of Congress' "Amazing Grace" collection comprises more than 3,000 recorded performances of the hymn by different individuals and musical ensembles made between the 1930s and 2000. It includes a great range of styles - big band, blues, classical, country, electronic, folk, gospel, jazz, operatic, rock, soul, and more. Performers have included children's groups, religious ensembles, concert bands, bagpipers, steel guitarists, and many individuals.

National Public Radio's Samantha Balaban made a comment that may provide an insight into the work's enduring popularity. "For a song with a 250-year history, the beauty of 'Amazing Grace' is its ability to shapeshift. It's a religious text or not. It's a hymn or a gospel song or a folk song. It spurs protesters to march forward or calms an angry crowd. It's a song of hope or mourning or celebration. It's a song you can sing with others or listen to in the quiet of your own home."

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. ...

If you're like me, you can't help but start singing this beautiful song when you hear its familiar strains. And, if you're also like me, you'll do it with a bit of a lump in your throat. Happy birthday, "Amazing Grace."

Top-left: Newton church; bottom-left: Cowper-Newton museum; top-center: Newton; middle-center: Cowper; bottom-right: Art enjoying fish-n-chips after museum visit; top-right: Katie after singing at uncle Stan's funeral. Click on her image to listen. (Newton/Cowper drawings from Wikipedia)

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