Monday, April 21, 2008

Hoax or inspiring tale?

I tend to think Andrew Sullivan is a rather gullible individual so when he started promoting the following video I was skeptical.

This has all the hallmarks of an urban legend. So I decided to research it. And the more I tried to verify it the more I got suspicious that this story is an invention.

Wintley Phipps is a black vocalist. He is also a Seventh Day Adventist ministet—an occupation that in my opinion indicates he is prone to believing myths. He does some good, of course, but that doesn't make this story true. In this video his claim is that all Negro spirituals can be played with just “the black notes” on the piano. That the black notes are black is not related in any way to Negro spirituals. He also claims that the song Amazing Grace is based on these notes and that the composer, John Newton, basically heard the tune from slaves.

Newton was a slaver. Phipps implies that when Newton became a Christian he wrote this song and suggests that he borrowed the music from African slaves. This is connected, in some vague way, to the idea that you can play the song with “just the black notes.” I keep getting the impression that this man believes that there is some connection between the keys on the piano being black and the slaves being black.

The black keys are known as the pentatonic scale. But Phipps insists that in early America it was called the “slave scale.” Slaves did use the pentatonic scale. But that doesn’t mean much. Pentatonic scales were also common in Celtic and English folk music, and can be found across Europe, Asia and Africa. They are not unique to Africans, or to slaves.

A lot of people on the Religious Right have pushed the idea that Newton’s conversion to Christianity turned him from slaver to abolitionist. The implication is that this double conversion was behind the song Amazing Grace. And Phipps seems to imply that Newton, in perhaps some symbolic gesture to the slaves, borrowed their own music as the tune. That interpretation of the facts is almost entirely false.

Newton did covert and he did change his life. He stopped swearing, drinking and gambling. But he didn’t stop slaving. He continued on as the captain of a slave ship for several more years. When he became sick and thought he would die he got converted all over again. He recovered and continued to work in the slave trade. It was six years after his conversion that he left the slave trade, but only to become a minister, not because he was opposed to slavery. He continued to support slavery. Newton did become an abolitionist decades after he became a Christian—clearly the new conversions were not related. His first abolitionist tract was only written 33 years after he converted to Christianity.

Now, we turn to the question of whether Newton stole the music for Amazing Grace from the slaves. It is generally believed that the music is a variant of a song entitled New Britain, which most certainly is not a slave ditty. It is believed that the music is a Celtic folk tune associated with the bagpipes. Slaves had nothing to do with the music and Newton didn’t steal the tune from them and apply it to the song. Newton didn’t even apply this music to his hymn. The music and Newton’s words were only first combined after his death. He had nothing to do with the music. Even if Newton heard the alleged ballads of the slaves he didn’t write the music associated with the hymn. It is simply not possible that the tune came from African slaves.

What about this alleged “slave scale” that Phipps talks about? Considering that the pentatonic scale was common among European cultures it strikes me as odd that a commonly used musical scale would be associated only with slaves. The white settlers in the United States, in the early years, were largely of English and Scottish origin. Since the pentatonic scale was common in their folk music I find it hard to think that they associated a musical scale they commonly used with that of slaves.

Phipps contends that the term “slave scale” was used commonly in early America. I find no evidence for this whatsoever. If it is true, I would think Mr. Phipps could provide some document, from that period of time, that uses the term “slave scale” in reference to the pentatonic scale. Attempts to do on-line searchers only bring up Mr. Phipps as the source for this claim. Nothing older backs up his story. That indicates to me that Phipps invented his story himself.

I tried Google books since they have added tens of thousands of out of print old books to their system. They have large selection of books from the period in question. There is not a single book from any period of time on Google books that uses the term “slave scale” in reference to music. I find that odd for something which Phipps says was a common reference.

My conclusion is that once again Andrew Sullivan has fallen for what Penn & Teller would call “Bullshit.”

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