Folk singer-songwriter Zoe Mulford remembers where she was, what she was doing, and how she felt when she watched President Barack Obama eulogize one of the nine people shot and killed in a Charleston church in 2015 then, unexpectedly, begin to sing “Amazing Grace.”
It was June 26, 2015. She was visiting an aunt in the Philadelphia suburbs. Mulford, who had lived for years without a television, found herself transfixed.
“The fact that President Obama was willing to do that, and it was the exact right thing to do in that time and in that place, that meant a lot to me. I was very moved,” said Mulford, who graduated from Delaware County’s Strath Haven High School in 1986. “He was there in the moment with a roomful of people, singing with him, and because the cameras were on him, the rest of us could be in that room, too.”
The emotion inspired Mulford to write and record “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” Legendary folksinger Joan Baez heard the song, loved it, and recorded a version for her most recent album, “Whistle Down the Wind.” Every song released was accompanied by an animated video, but “The President Sang Amazing Grace” went viral worldwide, and Mulford’s words and lyrics earned 2018 “Song of the Year” honors from Folk Alliance International.
Then California publishing house Cameron + Company saw the song’s potential to be a children’s book and released The President Sang Amazing Grace in September. It includes lyrics to Mulford’s song and its sheet music, biographies of the nine people killed in the shooting, and the words Obama spoke before and after the song. It is illustrated in watercolors and pastels by Jeffrey Scher, who created the video animation.
“Children will inherit the world and there are painful realities that are important for them to understand. Books create conversations,” said Rick Litvin, an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a Philadelphia native who conceptualized and produced the music video and managed the book adaptation. “This is a beautiful way of telling an important story.”
Mulford’s childhood home in Swarthmore was filled with music. Her late mother was a classically trained bass player who once performed with the Oakland Symphony. Her father enjoyed singing and had a deep love for chamber music. Mulford remembers lying in bed in her room above the kitchen, listening to Brahms string sextets whisper through the floorboards as her father washed dishes. Her mother sang, too, anything from folk songs to show tunes. Both were involved with the Players’ Club of Swarthmore.
“Human beings are built to sing,” said Mulford, who divides her time between Philadelphia and Manchester, England. “It’s part of our birthright and, in our society, we don’t use it enough.”
She furthered her music education in elementary school, where music teacher Bettejo Wagner encouraged students to write their own songs and introduced her students to Baez. Throughout high school, Mulford wrote songs for fun but went to college and entered the workplace with no thoughts of being a folk singer. She played the guitar and the piano and performed at open mic nights and farmers’ markets but she kept her day job.
Until 2003, when she released her first album, “Traveling Moon.” She’s recorded four albums since then, the latest being 2017’s “Small Brown Birds,” which she funded via a Kickstarter campaign. She’s seen a small uptick in sales since she’s been identified as the songwriter behind “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”
“I’ve now been name-checked and described as ‘unknown’ in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and on All Things Considered," said Mulford. "The Washington Post described me as ‘obscure’ because they’d once reviewed one of my albums. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the book.”
The Charleston shooting was the deadliest attack on a U.S. house of worship since a 1991 shooting at an Arizona Buddhist temple left nine dead. Obama, the nation’s “consoler-in-chief,” traveled to Charleston to eulogize Senior Pastor Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator. It was then that, unexpectedly, he sang.
Baez was driving when she heard first heard “The President Sang Amazing Grace” on the radio. “I had to pull over to make sure I heard whose song it was, because I knew I had to sing it,” she told The Atlantic. She wanted to include it on “Whistle Down the Wind,” the 79-year-old singer’s last studio album.
The first two verses describe what happened on the morning of June 17, 2015, inside the hallowed walls of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The lyrics are simple, factual. The shooter is not mentioned by name, his motives aren’t dissected.
“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”
“I wasn’t trying to editorialize,” said Mulford, who keeps the names of the “Emanuel Nine” in an open document on her desktop. “I was focused on telling the story the way the old history songs do: ‘This happened, then this happened, then this happened.’”
The song then jumps in time to Pinckney’s funeral and ends with the refrain:
“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’”
While the song doesn’t include the names of each victim, the video and book show sketches of each. The book also includes biographical details so people will know that:
Susie Jackson, 87, had a great smile and sang in the choir.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, had three children and coached high school track and field; Depayne Vontrease Middleton, 49, was a mother of four who worked for her alma mater, Southern Wesleyan University.
Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54, managed the Charleston County Library System.
Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., 74, was a Vietnam veteran and a Purple Heart recipient.
Ethel Lee Lance, 70, was a great-grandmother who’d attended the church for most of her life; Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders, 26, was a poet who died while shielding his mother.
Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson, 59, was a married mother of two and a Bible Study teacher.
Clementa Pinckney, 41, was a senior pastor, a husband, a father of two and “a good man,” as Obama eulogized him.
“These were not anonymous victims. They were human beings who lived in this world and are being memorialized,” said Litvin, the Philly native who produced the music video and managed the book adaptation. “I couldn’t imagine a more perfect song for these times, tragically so.”