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"Amazing Grace," US prisoners' liberation song

Enchant, Inspire

A documentary reveals the spiritual power of this Christian hymn (covered by Johnny Cash).

Is it possible that the mind is free even when the body isn’t? Judging by the phenomenon provoked by the song “Amazing Grace” and the effect it has had on prisoners in the US, it is. The documentary Amazing Grace, by director Bill Moyers, analyzes the relationship between captivity and spiritual freedom, taking as an example the old Christian hymn (in a version by Johnny Cash).

There are various examples of the search for ‘divine consolation’ by prisoners around the world, but this one, due to its level of peculiarity, is extremely interesting. The song “Amazing Grace,” written by English poet and priest John Newton in 1778, quickly became a typical Christian hymn heard and played extensively across the US in the 19th century, but perhaps because of its lyrics – the talk of forgiveness and redemption – or its soothing tone of epiphany, it has been adopted by prisoners as a comforting song.

There are numerous versions of the song, among them by Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Rod Stewart and Judy Collins; but it is Johnny Cash’s rendition that came to the attention of the director and which, according to the documentary, has changed the lives of many US prisoners. The phenomenon is doubly fascinating if we take into account that it is not only a specific song that has entered the lives of the prisoners, but a specific version of the song that is full of folklore and melancholy.

The documentary, made in 1990, shows a concert that Cash performed in Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas. It also shows interviews with men living in prison and who talk about how “Amazing Grace” has changed their lives, filling them with hope and teaching them about forgiveness and regret. Some of them maintain that they never would have really understood the song until they entered prison. As if the prison held the revelation of “Amazing Grace” in its cells for those that needed it.

And Johnny Cash also has a personal link to the song. According to the documentary, it was the song that he and his family sang when one of his brothers was killed. Perhaps that is why the song acquires a special power when sung by him.

“There are some songs that make a difference in your life, and that song makes a difference,” Cash says in the interview, and it is true. His interpretation of the song has made a difference in the lives of many people, both in prison and enjoying freedom. Moyers’ documentary also reminds us that humans’ natural emotions are not often touched as deeply as when we hear a song that speaks of divinity within oneself.

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