It’s a question I get a lot, so an article was needed on the subject. Were the tunes of our hymns originally used with barroom songs? A report in the November 30, 1993 edition of Christian Week celebrated the (then) thirty-year career of Larry Norman in contemporary Christian music. In the article, the writer, Ron Wall, made this statement:
“Like the hymn writers of old, Norman has used the music of bars and taverns to present the gospel.”
This is an oft-repeated claim. It implies that it was the general practice of earlier hymn writers to wed sacred words to secular tunes–and not just any secular tunes. The contention is that they purposely used the music of the beer hall crowd, so these people would be attracted to the gospel.
But is this historically accurate? It may be for some a comforting and convenient notion, but is it true? If not, repeating it over and over will not make it true! (And it is not.) If you study the history of the hundreds of tunes currently found in our hymn books (as I have done), here’s what you’ll discover.
An overwhelming majority of the tunes for the hymns were written especially for their texts, or were borrowed from earlier hymns. Those that were not come to us from a variety of sources. A few are of unknown or uncertain origin. A very few were adapted from oratorio or operatic melodies. And an even smaller number are recognized as adaptations of traditional ballads or folk melodies.
Martin Luther is one on whom this argument is based. Those wanting to bring the excesses of worldly music into the church do so on the basis of something they heard or read about him–that he commonly used the music of the drinking songs of his day, and put Christian words to them. We hear about Luther’s use of “barroom tunes.” But careful research has shown this is a total myth. Of the 37 chorales (hymns) written by Martin Luther, here is the source of his music:
-15 original tunes composed by Luther himself
-13 tunes from Latin hymns
-4 tunes adapted from German religious folk songs
-2 tunes that were from religious pilgrim songs
-2 tunes for which the source is unknown
-and one tune taken from a secular folk song
Even if the story ended there, it shows that Martin Luther was not in the habit of taking drinking songs and making hymns of them. But what of that one exception? The original words were “I Arrived from an Alien Country.” Luther wrote words for a Christmas hymn and used the tune. But within the next four years he replaced it with one of his own. More than one scholar suggests that he became concerned that the secular associations of the earlier tune diverted people’s attention from the worship of God.
Actually, the word “bar” was associated with Luther’s music, but in quite a different way. (Is this the source of the myth?) In mediaeval times, the word was used not to refer to bars where people drink, but to barred music. When part of a song was to be repeated, a special sign known as a “bar” was used to indicate this. (It saved ink and paper–precious in those days–not to repeat lines already given.) Many of our hymns and gospel songs today do the same thing, to save space in the hymn book. Thus the “bar” in connection with Luther’s music had nothing to do with taverns. It just signified a repeat!
In complete contrast to the barroom myth, Luther stated that he provided his own tunes for his hymns:
“To wean [people] from the love ballads and carnal songs, and teach them something of value in their place.” And he warned, “Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art [meaning music] with their erotic rantings; and be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on.”
But, let’s look more closely at a rare exception, a possible example of a “barroom tune”–or at least one that was formerly used with secular words. It is the melody used for Paul Gerhardt’s reverent text,
O sacred Head now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns Thine only crown.
The tune we commonly use for this hymn appeared as a secular love song in 1601. The song was called “My Heart Is Distracted by a Gentle Maid,” and it was published in a collection of music by Hans Leo Hassler, one of the best German composers of the later Renaissance.
Significantly, the melody was not wedded to Gerhardt’s lyric until 1644, more than forty years later. Before that it had already been associated with another German hymn for thirty years. Still later, the hymn was harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1729, and included in his oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion. (This gave the tune its present name, Passion Chorale.)
Consider the historical separation here. It took forty years before the words of O Sacred Head were put with this tune–not to mention that Bach’s use of it came over a century later still. We’re now more that four hundred years from the secular use of the tune. The fact that the tune Passion Chorale is not now being used in bars and taverns (as far as I know) means that it does not have that current association in people’s minds. How many Christians, singing this hymn on a Sunday morning, would find their minds drifting back to some scene in the local bar? I’d venture to say none!
Luther, Wesley and others were greatly concerned that Christians should not be singing the songs of the world. They certainly would not condone using something that would remind people explicitly of immoral conduct or a sinful lifestyle. Down through the centuries, many Christian hymn writers have laboured to keep the church’s music distinct and separate, recognizably different from the secular music of the day.
In the final analysis, we mustn’t use the practice of others as our standard. We cannot say, “Because some hymn writer did this, it is permissible for me to do the same.” The bottom line is that our ultimate standard is Christ (Eph. 4:13), and the principles of God’s Word (cf. Lk. 16:15). When Jesus met with His disciples after His resurrection, Peter, curious about what the future held for John, asked, “Lord, what about this man?” The Lord’s answer affirms a basic principle of personal responsibility: “What is that to you? You follow Me” (Jn. 21:21-22).