Signature Sunday: “The New Amazing Grace”

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March 16, 2014 by billysparrow

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Like all good teenagers, I had my time where I was into the Beat Generation. It lasted about four years or so, from senior year of high school through most of college. And if you’re going to spend any time looking into the Beat Generation, it helps to be within relatively close (everything in Manhattan is “relatively close” when you grow up in Staten Island) proximity to Greenwich Village and other Beat-related areas of the city, though I guess that’s less of a help as time goes on and NYU gradually takes over the Village and the buildings that made it special.

But in 1994, when I first became aware of the Beats (I think it started with my AP English class final project, which was a comparison of On the Road and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, after my proposal of doing an analysis of Bob Dylan lyrics was rejected), there were still enough things–and enough people–around to pique the interest of your average teen looking into what the Beats were all about. I’ll always be a little upset that I didn’t discover the Beats in time to take advantage of and fully appreciate the conference that NYU put together in the spring of 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Beat Generation (I’m particularly bummed to have missed Hunter S. Thompson talking about his connection with the Beats, but I didn’t even know who Hunter S. Thompson was in 1994). I remember hearing about it, but I definitely didn’t appreciate the magnitude of it.

I was, however, lucky enough to wind up meeting most of the writers featured at the conference over the years, usually at book signings or other Beat gatherings. The first one I met was at neither of those things, though. On May 10, 1994, I met Allen Ginsberg in Rockefeller Center after a taping of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” I remember the date without looking (though I did confirm it) because it is written on the index card Ginsberg signed for me that day. But first he schooled me on why I shouldn’t have people sign index card with Sharpies, because the ink will gradually bleed through the paper. Lesson learned, and a good tip for everyone.

And it was later that year that I got the chance to see Ginsberg in full performance mode, which I am so grateful to have experienced. Ginsberg was one of the performers at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery for “The New Amazing Grace,” a project conceived by Ed Sanders of The Fugs. The idea was to have poets and musicians contribute new verses to the old song and thus create “something that would celebrate the grace of being alive at the close of a crazy century, the grace of poetry, and the grace of the singing of poetry in harmony, and the greatest grace of all, ‘Amazing Grace.'”

Eventually, a call for verses was mentioned on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and the project was expanded to include verses from everyday citizens. The final product had its debut at St. Mark’s Church-on-the-Bowery, as part of the Poetry Project, on November 20, 1994.

I wish I could get my hands on a copy of the performance that evening (I think it was broadcast on WBAI, so there might be something out there somewhere), because my memory of the evening is hazy at best. The most vivid memory is hearing Ginsberg bellow out his verses (one of the few to perform their own verses), though I suppose if he had gone with his original verses (which Sanders describes as “rather scatological”) it would have been really memorable. Still, the ones he came up with were pretty good, and hearing him sing them in person remains a highlight of my time spent at readings in the city.
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But there were plenty of good verses throughout the evening, and I recall enjoying the music and talking to some of the singers and other musicians afterward as they signed my program (not in Sharpie). I spoke to folk musicians Amy Fradon and Leslie Ritter afterward about being sorry to have missed them when they played the Ithaca Music Hall, and promising to see them the next time they played there (which, sadly, was a promise I didn’t get a chance to keep, because the venue closed not long after). Every now and then I will see one or both of their names in some liner notes and think of that November night. And I’m glad to have kept the program so I can have a record of the verses written by people from different walks of life (though if I hadn’t, I could still get the verses, along with Sanders’ reflections, here).

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It was one of those New York nights that made me want to explore the city further. There I was sitting in a church listening to people bringing life to a centuries-old song by singing new verses to it. Who knew that such events were just a ferry ride away for me? Before going to “The New Amazing Grace,” I’d been to a few readings/book signings (Thomas Keneally and Allen Ginsberg are the two I remember, but there were probably a few others), but that night in November was something special, something that made me want to know and learn more.

That night was the further opening of a door that was a little hard to find in Staten Island, and it opened to a world of amazing writers talking about and reading from their works in every corner of the city. And those words hit my ears and filled my heart and made me a wiser, happier human being.

How sweet the sound.

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