Brilliant Songs #16: Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang ‘Amazing Grace'”

We are a nation rent asunder, in a horrible mess, increasingly hard and loud at each other and dismissed—or worse: pitied—by our former allies, while our enemies busy themselves with furthering the work of our Mad King in undermining the very foundations of our democracy. Millions of us are voting frantically, in fear and trembling that it won’t be counted, will be challenged, hidden away or burned while armies of lawyers descend on a newly stolen Supreme Court with petitions to sow yet more chaos and perpetuate the reign of an obviously demented Divider-in-Chief.

What kind of man summons his followers to tightly packed worship rallies that expose them to a potentially deadly virus, all the while denying its very existence and ridiculing those who seek to keep us safe us from it? One can’t help but feel we are not so much approaching but are now fully submerged in lunacy under the most wreckless man in America.

How powerful it can be when a nation’s leader beholds tragedy and lifts it (and our downcast heads) up to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ straight from an overflowing and generous heart.

And for all this, I would be angry but for the fact that I am instead heartbroken, dismayed, crushed and incredulous that the election in five days will not be a 90% to 9% annihilation. Rather, upwards of 65 million people and perhaps 45% or more of the voting public will have surveyed the wreckage of these four years and not only abide its twisted, dark machinations, but assent to four more years of it.

Among them, people I know and love who refuse to see—or can’t?—no, I do not want to accept that they can’t see—how he daily violates the most fundamental tenets of human decency, and remains gleeful in descending to depths no politician in this country has ever dared go.

Before this tumult, I don’t think I ever truly understood  just how largely a president looms in a nation’s consciousness and very existence.

And how powerful it can be when one of them beholds tragedy and lifts it (and our downcast heads) up to sing “Amazing Grace,” straight from an overflowing and generous heart.

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Little-known folksinger and songwriter Zoe Mulford wrote “The President Sang Amazing Grace” after the 2015 slaughter of nine parishioners at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mulford had lived without a TV for years but was visiting an aunt outside Philadelphia (Mulford had grown up nearby), with whom she caught the memorial service at which President Barack Obama eulogized the minister who was among the slain.

Obama, never lacking in empathy and good intentions, unexpectedly broke into an a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace” that seemed utterly pitch-perfect for the occasion and brought grins and tears to the clergy who shared the dais with him, to the assembled congregation, and a worldwide electronic audience who was either watching then or has caught it since from myriad sources on the Internet.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, or even if you have, go on and treat yourself to a remembrance of what a sane and humane president we had not long ago, and most righteously deserve again. Then we’ll get to the song it inspired.

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Profoundly moved as anyone with a heart would be at such an eloquent gesture, Mulford had the advantage of her musical gifts to memorialize the moment, such moments of sheer grace never in danger of being too much or too frequent. So she wrote the song in the wake of the event and then included it in her 2017 album, “Small Brown Birds.”

Some regular airtime on independent radio stations followed, but a monster hit it was not, and like so many fine musicians the world over, Mulford was just settling the song in with her body of work when Joan Baez happened to hear it on her car radio.

Here’s what Baez had to say about it to NPR’s Ari Shapiro in a late February, 2018 interview:

“It’s an amazing little tune. When I first heard it, I had to pull the car over, because I started crying. And then for the first two weeks of trying to figure it out on the guitar, I kept crying. I was afraid that when I got in the studio, it wouldn’t be over. But I went into the studio, and then I just looked at the musicians and I said, ‘Let’s go to church.’”

Baez’s recording vaulted the song onto many more playlists and You Tube channels, and the rest is an ongoing history, with Mulford still not quite famous (she doesn’t yet have her own entry on Wikipedia), but certainly drawing richly deserved accolades for the inspiring song that came from being inspired in turn by President Obama.

She has also collaborated with Baez and illustrator Jeff Scher and turned it into a sweet children’s board book, for ages 5-7, and with the holidays just around the corner, well…

Here are that “amazing little tune’s” lyrics, followed first by Mulford’s recording, and then a couple of other versions I think you’ll be pleased to have beheld.

 The President Sang Amazing Grace

A young man came to a house of prayer
They did not ask what brought him there
He was not friend, he was not kin
But they opened the door and let him in

And for an hour the stranger stayed
He sat with them and seemed to pray
But then the young man drew a gun
And killed nine people, old and young

In Charleston in the month of June
The mourners gathered in a room
The President came to speak some words
And the cameras rolled and the nation heard

But no words could say what must be said
For all the living and the dead
So on that day and in that place
The President sang Amazing Grace
The President sang Amazing Grace

We argued where to lay the blame
On one man’s hate or our nation’s shame
Some sickness of the mind or soul
And how the wounds might be made whole

But no words could say what must be said
For all the living and the dead
So on that day and in that place
The President sang Amazing Grace
My President sang Amazing Grace

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This is one of those songs that stands by and speaks for itself, nothing obtuse or dense, more prayer than poetry, perhaps, recalling a prayerful and transcendent moment in American history, atop an unspeakable tragedy. Tender, looking to bind up wounds.

After Tuesday, we could stand for plenty more of the same, and a long sustained avalanche of normal.

Normal kindness, normal civility, normal disagreements, normal restraint, normal respect, normal listening and arguing and maybe, sliding in with and as a result of all those, the bare beginnings of an amazing grace.

After all, it’s supposed to be dispensed freely by all that is good and true in this world, is it not?

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O.K., two other versions: couldn’t let you slip away without Ms. Baez herself, and then the other, quite remarkable, more overtly sacred version from the Ethiopian-American singer Meklit, accompanied from the sonorous depths of creation by the always amazing Kronos Quartet. Enjoy! And: Vote!!

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Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Zoe Mulford photo from her website: https://zoemulford.com

11 comments to Brilliant Songs #16: Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang ‘Amazing Grace'”

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Gives chills, gives me hope, gives me faith in our common, albeit flawed humanity—thanks Andrew, for these gifts!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Very happy to find and share it, Kevin, thank you!

  • Mary Graves  says:

    Beautiful song and lovely way to tell the news. thx Andrew

    still….”Let no man pull you low enough to hate him”. MLK

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Always good to keep MLK in mind, Mary, and a fine and important intention it is. My feeling has become heartbreak for our country rather than hate for the president. He’s a severely damaged soul who needs help, but the presidency is certainly not going to fix it for him. (It just makes his condition worse.) And meanwhile, we endure this nightmare, and the clear and present danger of someone like him with the nuclear codes…

      Also meanwhile: music! :-)

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:

    Thanks for this reminder. President Obama is having a good time in Florida stumping for Joe B., as he senses along with George Will and others, the upcoming overwhelming “repudiation” of this president.

    https://advertiser-tribune.com/news/285167/the-coming-decade-of-democratic-dominance/

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for that, Gerry. What I find in many ways most interesting is the tectonic shift we may be facing in how many rock-ribbed former Republicans like George Will, Bill Kristol, Jeff Flake, the whole gang at The Bulwark and The Lincoln Project, have now gone beyond being anti-Trump to emphatically leaving the Republican Party altogether. That’s doesn’t mean they’re becoming Democrats, but they most certainly are voting for a lot of them, and simply do not, cannot, consider themselves Republicans any longer. You know the Bushes will all be voting for Biden, along with the McCain family, probably Romney, and so many others. The party is rotting from within, so where do all these completely disaffected people go? Last chapter is far from being written yet on what this means, and how Trump’s takeover and the sycophants it produced throughout the party will play out over the coming years.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Once again, you reach into the universe and pull out beauty and grace, and haul me from the brink, back to hopeful. Back to Hopeful would be a good name for something. Anyway, I stole my favorite version and posted it on FaceBook, giving you full credit. And, I listened to all of these versions until I was full. Thank you!!!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      “Back to Hopeful” could’ve been a Biden campaign slogan, Jeanette, and it would have served him well! I will bless You Tube forever for giving us different versions of songs, and am glad to hear you are a kindred spirit, bathing in those riches. (And now we just have to get through Tuesday, and “hopefully” not too many days beyond that…)

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I wrote this poem after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

    “The Tree of Life”

    Not long after it was built,
    the waterfront began showing its age
    dulled wooden pilings,
    pockmarked by rusting metal,
    peeling paint oily splinter flecks,
    bobbing up and down like toothless actors,
    in Monongahela’s muddy water side show.
    Toward the hills above the wrinkling,
    beyond the steely Smithfield Street Bridge,
    lay Ebdy’s Orchard and Murdoch’s Farm,
    trespassing gray squirrels hurdled
    over branches of black ridged oak,
    like giddy children playing tag,
    pelting acorns at a trolley below,
    ricochets of tinny notes,
    dancing to an electric drone rhythm,
    as the car scurried quickly away,
    down Forbes to Murray Avenue.

    About this time the Jews arrived,
    Slovakian and Ukrainian steamer trunks
    mingled with travel bags and luggage
    from adjacent Oakland and the Hill District,
    settling in two-story brick houses,
    along Darlington Road and Beacon Streets,
    soon businesses swirled down “upstreet”
    kosher butcher shops,
    windows studded with menorah,
    delis of kreplach, knish and pastrami,
    lilac paths winding through Frick Park,
    down into the heart of Squirrel Hill–
    the L’Simcha synagogue,
    the Tree of Life.

    Last month a menacing cloud
    overwhelmed Squirrel Hill’s halcyon skies,
    casting a pall upon the Monongahela sunrise,
    its evil shadow evaded the eruv,
    and entered the synagogue,
    scorning the ark and hekhal,
    anti-Semitic hatred poured down,
    icy bullets shattering the Shabbat service,
    eleven elderly worshippers perished,
    tender souls interlocked,
    sharing words from the Torah scroll,
    “Gam zu l’tova. This too is for the good.”

    Yesterday girls from a nearby Chabad school,
    walked to the Tree of Life Synagogue,
    arms wrapped around one another,
    prayer books in hands,
    blue ribbons in hair and on wrists,
    sang of the Jewish triumph over persecution,
    then a whisper rose above it all,
    “When I was a boy and I would see scary news,
    my mother would say to me,
    ‘Look for the helpers.
    You will always find people who are helping.’

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Both somber and hopeful, Mr. Spencer, thank you…

  • Loren Webster  says:

    Thanks for a different perspective on what passes for news nowadays.

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