Which of our favorite hymns are rewritten “bar” songs?

Which of our favorite hymns are rewritten “bar” songs? November 2, 2015

martin luther

Photo by Thierry Ehrmann. Available through Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0 License

Are many of our favorite and most-enduring hymns set to tunes borrowed from “drinking” songs, “bar” melodies, or tavern music?


Many of you are now saying, “But that’s not true! Everyone knows Martin Luther did it?”

Nope. Luther certainly didn’t, nor did anyone else who made any meaningful contribution to Christian hymnody. Unless you happen to be a soldier in General Booth’s army, but I digress.

The first time I remember hearing this assertion was nearly ten years ago in a graduate-level class at Wheaton College. My proposed research topic had sparked a lively debate between two of my classmates about appropriate music for corporate worship. The person who used this argument was an intelligent and respected student who has since completed post-graduate work in theology and church history. She ought to have known better.

I wrote down what she said verbatim:

“I mean, like, a lot of the hymns we know were barroom songs before they became, like, ‘God Bless America,’ or whatever.”

I was also speechless that she was under the impression that Irving Berlin’s schmaltzy, sentimental, United States-worshiping ditty was actually a great hymn of the church, but, like, whatever…

One of the most common arguments for the use of christianized commercial music in corporate worship is that beloved hymn-writers used tavern tunes for their hymns in a fervent evangelistic appeal to the musical appetites of the time. I see it on nearly every thread here on Ponder Anew. One commentor actually went so far as to suggest that Luther would be singing “Jesus” to Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” This just isn’t true, and after having been debunked countless times, we still see it gaining traction among people who ought to know better.

(However, if you are interested in combining hymn-singing and adult libations, give this kind of thing a try. If you need a crappy pianist, I’m there!)

Delving further into 16th century music history would teach us that we’re asking the wrong question, anyway. The institutional church’s influence on society at that time was immense; it was far greater than we in postmodern America could fathom. Thus, secular music was generally derived from the musical idiom of the church, not the other way around as it is today. Discussion on this fact demands an entirely different post, and it would have to be written by someone far more knowledgeable than yours truly.

Here’s what we do know about the Martin Luther situation. Luther was obviously quite interested in empowering common people to participate in the liturgy. When it came to music, he wrote his own tunes based on existing chants and religious tunes, and folk melodies. They were chosen, not necessarily because they were already well-known tunes, but because they were accessible. That was the key. They were singable. In practical terms, they were not melodically or rhythmically difficult, didn’t stretch the average vocal range, and set the text with dignity, beauty, and artistry.

It wasn’t that he was trying to engage secular culture, it was that he wanted people to be able to participate. And though it’s well-documented that Luther had a particular affinity for the suds, as any good German, the issue isn’t really about “drinking songs” specifically, but music of low aesthetic and artistic quality (American pop music, anyone?!?). While he may have, like many after him, drawn from beautiful and artistic folk or classical sources, he would not have borrowed melodies from trite, disposable texts for congregational singing. Check out this quote from the preface to one of Luther’s hymnals:

These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young – who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts – something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth. (1)

If there is an argument for the church borrowing directly from American popular music, we really cannot use Luther, or any other hymnwriters, to make our case. (Oh, and John and Charles didn’t do it, either. In fact, if you know anything about the Wesleyan view on alcohol consumption, you’d find the “drinking song” argument even more difficult. See the link to the McIntyre article below.) It’s clear that Luther would not be supportive of using the common popular idioms in order to appeal to a common population on a purely sensory level. In fact, I imagine he would be aghast at the low level of musicianship commonly found among those we often find leading church music today.

What we might gain from this quote is that Luther would have also supported church music education and the use of good, artistic music in corporate worship, as opposed to the most dispensable of the vernacular. And we also have to recognize that the proliferation of the recording industry has further limited us today in developing good musicians and church music programs, and instead settle for what are essentially cover bands leading congregations in singing as if they were singing along with the radio in the car, mimicking the vocals of Top 40 recording artists.

All this is not to say that there is an inherent evilness in secular music, or even in American popular music (although many of the fundamentalists I grew up around would beg to differ), but the profound poverty of artistry and imagination found in our culture’s musical output is staggering, as is our willingness to fill our worship gatherings with christianized versions. As our fleeting human ability to create beautiful artistic expression is such a striking example of our divine Creator’s image in us, I don’t think the church can denounce this trend strongly enough.

The great Creator is still creating. So are we to be.

To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, comments from Mr. Hank Hill from Arlen, Texas.

1. Martin Luther, “Preface to the 1524 Wittenberg Hymnal” in Vol. 53: Luther’s works, Liturgy and Hymns J. J.Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed. (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1999, c1965), 315.

Further reading:

Music, David W. “Getting Luther out of the Barroom.” The Hymn 45(4), (October 1994): 51.

“Debunking the Wesley Tavern Song Myth” by Dean McIntyre

“Music, Worship, and Martin Luther” by Charles P. St-Onge

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