State Rep. Mike Sparks of Rutherford County is proposing a State and Symbols bill that would add Dolly Parton’s recorded version of “Amazing Grace” to the list of state songs.
The bill has yet to be introduced in the state capitol due to recent weather-related office closures. It will eventually be carried to the Senate floor by State Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis.
Sparks says he believes the hymn carries historical significance within the country and the state. It was sung by marginalized groups, such as the Indigenous peoples on the Trail of Tears and African Americans during the time of slavery.
“I do think that the hymn could bring some healing, if you will, with all the division in the country today,” Sparks said.
Sparks said the story behind the song is one of redemption. From a documentary, he learned of the connection between John Newton, the hymn’s author and a former slave ship captain, and William Wilberforce, a British lawmaker.
After nearly losing his life at sea, Newton “had kind of an awakening moment,” and was inspired to work toward putting an end to the slave trade. He went on to befriend Wilberforce, an advocate for the abolishment of slavery and wrote the song in 1772.
Sparks said he shared this story with students at Middle Tennessee State University during the 2015 protests to rename the campus’ Forrest Hall dormitories.
“That hymn is a powerful hymn,” Sparks said.
He referenced a book recommended by Greg Reish, the director of the MTSU’s Center of Popular Music, called “Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song”.
Sparks says he used the book to research the origin of the hymn. He said that something that stood out to him was a back cover blurb from Bono, the lead-singer of U2. Sparks said he found a live performance where Bono sang “Amazing Grace” in Nashville.
He said the coincidence further solidified his faith in the song.
“That’s more confirmation of the importance of this hymn to reach black and white, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor,” Sparks said.
He said he remembers the impact that the song had on state legislators in 2017 when the Stewarts Creek High School choir was invited to sing it at the state capitol.
“It was probably one of the most diverse groups of young ladies that had ever been at the (state) capitol,” said Sparks of the then all-female choir. “There was not a dry eye in the House, and the pun is intended.”
All 10 of the songs included on the state song list — “The Pride of Tennessee”, “My Homeland, Tennessee”, “When It’s Iris Time in Tennessee”, “A Tennessee Bicentennial Rap”, “My Tennessee”, “Smoky Mountain Rain”, “Tennessee Waltz”, “Rocky Top”, “Tennessee (1992)” and “Tennessee (2012) — feature references to Tennessee in the title or within the lyrics. Sparks says he isn’t concerned that “Amazing Grace” would be considered too broad to fall into that category.
“Here’s the irony. Nobody ever listens to those other songs. Nobody sings those songs. Nobody could probably even name them, but everybody has sung ‘Amazing Grace’,” Sparks said.
He pointed out that the song has been covered many times by various Tennessee-born artists, including Parton, Aretha Franklin and The Oak Ridge Boys.
“The song is more connected to Tennessee than any other state in the Union,” Sparks said.