Did the Melodies of Our Hymns Original as Barroom Tunes?

Barroom tunes for hymns? This is an oft-repeated claim. It implies that it was the general practice of earlier hymn writers to wed sacred words with secular tunes--and not just any secular tunes. The contention is that they purposely used the music of the rowdy beer hall crowd, so the people who frequented such places would be attracted to the gospel.

But is that 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 somehow make it true. I heard this claim so often years ago that one day I took a large hymn book and went through it, checking every tune. I failed to find any melodies that could clearly be called “barroom tunes.”

If you study the history of the hundreds of tunes currently found in our hymn books (as I have done) here is what you will discover. A large percentage of the melodies for the hymns we sing were written especially for their texts, or were borrowed from earlier hymns.

Those that did not originate in this way come to us from a variety of sources. Some are of unknown or uncertain origin. A very small number were adapted from Christian oratorios or operatic melodies. And a few are recognized as adaptations of traditional ballads or folk melodies. Were any of these ever sung in taverns? Perhaps. We were not there to hear. But we must not place too much stock in such claims.

Martin Luther is one on whom this argument is based. Sometimes, those who want to excuse bringing the excesses of worldly music into the church do so on the basis of something they heard or read somewhere about Luther--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 that is a 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

-1 tune taken from a secular folk song

(Source: Robert Harrell, Martin Luther, His Music, His Message (Greenville, SC, 1980), p. 18. )

Even if the story ended there, it would show that Martin Luther was not in the habit of taking drinking songs and making hymns of them. But there is an interesting postscript regarding that last tune. The original secular words were "I Arrived from an Alien Country." Luther wrote the lyrics for a Christmas hymn, and adopted the tune.

But within the next four years, for reasons not completely explained, he wrote an original melody for the hymn, and replaced the secular one. One scholar suggests that he may have been embarrassed to hear the tune for his Christmas hymn being used in inns and dance halls. The associations of the tune diverted people's attention from the worship of God and defeated his purpose, so he discarded it.

In earlier times, simple hymn tunes were written to different metres. These were often used interchangeably with various hymn poems. Even today, a look at most hymn books will reveal many tunes that are used more than once. An example is the tune, Darwall, written in 1770, by John Darwell, as a tune for a paraphrase of Psalm 148. Later, it came to be used for the hymns "Come, Thou Almighty King," and "Join All the Glorious Names."

And there were practical reasons for this multiple usage. First, many of the hymn writers were not trained musicians. They wrote poetry, but were not able to supply music for it. So they borrowed a hymn tune already in use. Then, in teaching a new hymn to a congregation, they were greatly aided by adopting a tune that was known. However, to suggest these were previously drunken beer hall songs is ridiculous.

But, let us look more closely at 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....

Gerhardt's words are a German translation of a poem attributed to the medieval monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153).

The tune which 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 with Gerhardt's sacred lyric until 1644, more than forty years later (before which it had been associated with another German hymn for thirty years).

Then, the hymn was harmonized by Christian composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 1729, and included in his oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion. (This gave the tune its present name, Passion Chorale.) Using this hymn for illustrative purposes, we can raise several important points.

1) Let us suppose that Hassler's secular song was originally sung in the taverns of his day. It is important to ask whether the atmosphere of the taverns of that period is analogous to what is experienced today. We cannot indiscriminately impose our present culture on an earlier time. Often, the taverns were local meeting places or they functioned as restaurants in conjunction with inns. That may not be quite the same as a modern barroom.

Further, we must consider another cultural difference. There was not, in former days, a distinction made between the music of the younger and the older generations. Junior's music was also grandpa's music. Making and enjoying music was a family affair. Sometimes, the issue behind the "beer hall tunes" argument today is the desire to impose the music of one generation upon another which may not want it. That is quite a different matter.

2) Then, consider the importance of historical separation. 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 it shifting their thoughts back to some scene in the local bar? (I venture to say, None!) Perhaps it is even significant that it took forty years before the words of "O Sacred Head" were put with this tune--not to mention that Bach's use came over a century later still.

3) While it has undoubtedly been done at times--this wedding of sacred words to a secular tunes--we must not ignore the forceful a reaction against this practice by many. There has been at least as strong an argument in the other direction. Christian revivalists and reformers were sensitive to anything in the church that was tainted with worldly values. Luther states 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.”

Another comment of Luther's is even more pointed. “Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings; and be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on.” Luther, Wesley and others were appalled that Christians should be singing the degrading songs of the world. They certainly would not condone using something that would remind people explicitly of immoral conduct or a sinful lifestyle. Many down through the ages have laboured to keep the church's music distinct and separate, recognizably different from the secular music of the day.

4) We need to remember, also, that the process of history is not cyclical. We must be careful of saying that what is happening now is simply history repeating itself. God warns us that in the last days, "evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (II Tim. 3:13). The morals of today are not necessarily the same as those of four hundred years ago. Nor is the quality of music. To say that a popular song of that earlier day had a standard of excellence worthy of better words, is not to say that the music of today necessarily has. It may be suitable for such a use or it may not.

5) But, some will tell us, "We mustn't let the devil have all the good tunes." This saying has been variously attributed to Luther, Wesley and others. It has been used as an excuse to bring worldly music into the church, on the contention that this somehow sanctifies it. In fact, evidence indicates that the statement was first made in 1844, in a sermon by Rev. Rowland Hill. His church, Surrey Chapel, in London, had just installed a new pipe organ. He was referring to this, and to the church’s efforts to keep their music of high quality. He was not condoning the introduction of worldly melodies or music styles into the house of God.

There is a saying that "all truth is God's truth." In a limited sense, perhaps we could say that all beauty and fine craftsmanship is the Lord's too. In other words, a well-structured melody is worthy of being united with sacred words unless:

Its style is unsuited to the sacred lyric

It is associated in people's minds with a prior lyric that is corrupt

It is associated, because of its former use, with a lifestyle or practices that are dishonouring to the Lord

It is of a clearly recognizable style, and the style itself has these strong sinful associations

6) It would be interesting to propose that we reverse the process. That is, what if we took the tune for "O Sacred Head," or for the hymn "Abide With Me" (for example) and played them in a bar today, would this be accepted by the patrons? Would such tunes be well received if we played them in precisely the traditional style that is used in our churches?--because that is what is being proposed for music coming from the other direction, the duplication of a style. The answer is probably not.

7) In the final analysis, we must not use the practices of others as our standard. We cannot say, "Because some hymn writer did this, it is permissible for me to do the same." We cannot even be sure that these hymn writers, in their own time, did not face difficulties because of their occasional use of secular tunes. And the bottom line is that our ultimate standard is Christ (Eph. 4:13).

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).

To sum up: No, our hymn melodies were not previously barroom tunes. If this can be said for one or two of them it is a rare exception. If someone makes that claim, ask him to give you a list of the tunes, and send the list to me. I’d love to check it out. The following Scripture issues a clear condemnation of the practice of bringing the ways of the world into the assembly of God’s people. When Israel was about the enter the Promised Land, Jehovah God gave the people a pertinent warning through Moses:

“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deut. 12:29-32; cf. Lk. 16:15).