Christian Mythstory: Hymns and Drinking Songs


One very common bit of Christian mythstory- which is as recent as it is misguided- concerns hymns and their origins. That this particular myth is likely only as old as the so-called worship wars of the late 20th century (saints preserve us) is perhaps coincidental, yet for its relatively recent nativity it has nevertheless anchored itself into the accepted wisdom which allows other mythstories to perpetuate from year to year.

The myth goes something like this:

Some of the tunes/melodies for some of the great hymns of the Christian faith were actually originally tavern/drinking songs that were appropriated by their authors for use in church. Luminaries such as Martin Luther and Charles and John Wesley thus saw no reason to not redeem secular music for sacred use.

There are various applications/justifications/etc. that could be drawn from the principle underpinning this myth; that, however, is beyond the scope of this entry. Rather, a better question to answer might be:

Is this mythstory true?

Sacred vs. Secular

There are a number of ideological assumptions behind this sort of myth story, which form the heart of it as much as the facts (or lack thereof). Author Rick Warren summed up nicely what a post-modern approach to music looks like in relation to these questions:

There is no such thing as ‘Christian’ music; there are only Christian lyrics. It is the words that make a song sacred, not the tune. There are no spiritual tunes. If I played a song for you without the words, you’d have no way of knowing if it were a ‘Christian’ song. (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, p 66)

While this certainly makes perfect sense to post-moderns, those in the hymn-writing eras in question likely would have thought such a statement incomprehensible. To someone of Luther’s time, the notion of a divide between the sacred and the secular was very nebulous and would be bloodily hammered out over the next few centuries. This was true even in music.

It is hard for post-moderns to imagine, but the influence of the Church over every aspect of daily life was immense. Secular and sacred life flowed in and out of one another since there wasn’t a wide dichotomy. Music itself was not even a business as we consider it today or something simply for consumption; rather, it was part and parcel of life.

In the post-modern world we tend to imagine the “secular” as religiously and philosophically neutral, which makes it easier for us to posit the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. But in Luther’s time (and to some extent even in the Wesley’s time) this sort of separation would have seemed meaningless.

The point of this little digression is that music of the past didn’t operate within the sorts of modern and post-modern categories that we often attempt to foist on them. In Luther’s time the Church permeated everything, and thus what we might consider the “secular” was actually infused and saturated with the sacred. The troubadours singing their “secular” love ballads were also in church, and as a result had their entire philosophical and religious perspective shaped and molded over a lifetime accordingly.

That is, of course, not to say that everything was somehow sacred or for sacred use. However, even what we might consider “secular” art was “subjected to an intellectual discipline characterized by piety and churchliness.”(Friedrich Blume, et al, Protestant Church Music: A History, p. 29) It was the art and artistic expressions that were not thusly subjected which were in actuality seen by many of the hymns writers as something to be avoided, as we will see.

Semantics Strike Back

The ideology of this mythstory aside, perhaps the most amusing feature is that it seems to largely have been derived from a misunderstanding of musical terminology.

I intentionally used “tavern/drinking songs” in my description of the mythstory so as to not fall into the semantic trap myself. However, in the more common version of the myth the term used is “bar songs” or “bar tunes.”

This might seem quibbling, but it’s actually quite important since writers like Luther did indeed use “bar tunes” in their compositions. But sometimes univocation can strike back.

It is true, Luther did use bar tunes. It is crucial to note, however, that the term “bar tune” (more commonly referred to as “bar from”) is simply musical terminology referring to a specific musical form. In bar form, there are two similar or identical musical lines followed by a contrasting one, taking the form of AAB or sometimes AABA).

For example, A Mighty Fortress employs a variation of this form:

A:   A mighty Fortress is our God,
       A trusty Shield and Weapon;

A:   He helps us free from every need
       That hath us now o’ertaken.

B:    The old evil Foe
        Now means deadly woe;
        Deep guile and great might
        Are his dread arms in fight;

A’:   On Earth is not his equal.

The secular/sacred dichotomy that makes sense to post-moderns once again makes things difficult here, for in Luther’s time

stylistically there is very little difference between a German popular song in the sixteenth century, a sacred Protestant chorale and a Leise. (Rebecca Wagner Oettinger, Music as Propaganda in the German Reformation, p. 25)

Due to the lack of distinction between the sacred and the secular in music in the late medieval period, often the people writing music for sacred texts were the same ones writing for “secular” texts. And given the enormous influence that the church had on culture in the medieval period, the result is that folk culture was more influenced by the church than the other way around:

The fluid boundary between the sacred and secular spheres made popular music welcome in the Christian churches of Germany, either as part of the liturgy or in paraliturgical religious activities. Religious song was also at home in the non-sacred world, sung as devotion or as entertainment in the same homes and streets where secular pieces predominated. (ibid.)

From Whence?

All of the foregoing is perhaps interesting, but the pertinent question might be: is there any evidence that these luminaries of hymnody use bar songs for the tunes of their hymns?

Since Luther and the Wesleys are often the archetypes of this mythstory, it is perhaps best to focus on them.

Luther seems the most likely candidate due to our post-modern caricatures of him as a beer-loving freedom fighter sticking it to the man. However, for all of Luther’s reformations, using drinking songs for hymn tunes was not one of them.

He essentially debunks his role in this mythstory in his introduction to the Wittenberg hymnal:

These songs have been set in four parts, for no other reason than because I wished to provide our young people (who both will and ought to be instructed in music and other sciences) with something whereby they might rid themselves of amorous and carnal songs, and in their stead learn something wholesome, and so apply themselves to what is good with pleasure, as becometh the young. (Martin Luther, First Preface to the 1524 Wittenberg Hymnal)

It is also instructive to explore the repositories from whence he drew music for his hymns. Two of the most prevalent sources were Gregorian chant and Latin Office hymns; his most well known A Mighty Fortress is modeled on Gregorian melodies. (Scott Aniol, Did Luther Use Tunes From Love Songs?) He also used tunes from religious folksongs and “secular” folksongs, as well as some original tunes in the same vein of German folk songs (ibid).

For Luther, it was important to create compositions that were eminently singable, both because the melody was enjoyable (although not necessarily “catchy” as we might understand it) and within the range of most people:

The melodic range Luther used most often was a ninth, a very comfortable singing range. The modes that Luther most often used were the easiest ones to sing: the Dorian and Ionian modes. (Charles P. St-Onge, Music, Worship and Martin Luther)

Interestingly, there is one example of a Luther hymn which applies to this myth, although primarily as a way to drive more nails into its coffin. He composed a Christmas hymn using a folk tune called O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen which he was later embarrassed to hear being sung in “inns and dance halls.” (Paul Nettle, Luther and Music, p. 48) Apparently this was such an affront to him that he ended up changing the tune altogether. (Scott Aniol, Did Luther Use Tunes From Love Songs?)

As a quick aside, Luther is sometimes quoted as saying something like “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” This quote itself is almost certainly anachronistic, but may actually have some basis in his writings. The interesting thing, however, is that he is not actually using “The Devil” as a stand-in for the world and its music, but is rather engaging in a not so subtle polemic against what he considered extravagances, abuses or outright unChristian doctrine in the Catholic Church of his day. To wit:

Accordingly have we, in our churches, abolished, done away, and out-and-out made an end of the popish horrors, such as wakes, masses for the soul, obsequies, purgatory, and all other mummeries for the dead, and will no longer have our churches turned into wailing-places and houses of mourning, but, as the primitive Fathers called them, “Cemeteries,” that is, resting and sleeping places.

As a good example of what should be used for this end, we have taken the sweet music or melodies which under popish rule are in use at wakes, funerals and masses for the dead, some of which we have printed in this little book; and it is in our thought, as time shall serve, to add others to them, or have this done by more competent hands. But we have set other words thereto, such as shall adorn our doctrine of the resurrection, not that of purgatory with its pains and expiations, whereby the dead may neither sleep nor rest. The notes and melodies are of great price; it were pity to let them perish; but the words to them were unchristian and uncouth, so let these perish.

It is just as in other matters they do greatly excel us, having splendid rites of worship, magnificent convents and abbeys; but the preachings and doctrines heard therein do for the most part serve the devil and dishonor God; who nevertheless is Lord and God over all the earth, and should have of everything the fairest, best and noblest. (Martin Luther, Second Preface to the 1524 Wittenberg Hymnal)

In what can only be considered the most delicious of ironies, Luther’s intent and practice was not to take from the world and rework it to God’s use, but rather to take the work of the church that he felt had been corrupted and purify it for God’s use.

The Wesleys also employed similar sources for their tunes, although less from Gregorian and Latin Office hymns and more from Anglican song. John seems to have

made use of new tunes composed or adapted from folk tunes, sacred and secular oratorio, and even operatic melodies. (Dean McIntyre, Did the Wesleys Really Use Drinking Song Tunes for Their Hymns?)

Some of the same semantic confusion remains here, since many Wesley hymns use the bar form as well. John seems to have had great care for the actual aesthetics of the tunes, in that he favored a natural simplicity, while Charles’ texts increasingly became more complex and required more complex music to accompany the music. (ibid.) While in Luther’s 16th century Germany there wasn’t much stylistic variation in music, in the Wesley’s 18th century England this was not necessarily the case. Both seemed to have eschewed what might be termed popular music and favored music of a more highly aesthetic quality.

John (like Luther before him) also seems to draw a distinction between music that is intended for God and that which serves a more banal or insidious purpose. Luther sought to wean people away from love ballads and carnal songs, and in a similar (although more pronounced) manner John’s intent was such:

Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan. (John Wesley, Directions For Singing, 4th Direction)

In the Wesleys’ minds (and in Luther’s as well), the music that accompanied a text wasn’t some separate reality; they viewed the union of tune and text as more of a marriage. Thus, the character of the tune had to have a consonance with the text, which is why Luther found such frustration with hearing his Christmas hymn sung in dance houses and why John Wesley directed that those using his hymns:

Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. (John Wesley, Directions for Singing, 7th Direction)

To be able to “sing spiritually” does not actually entail some sort of Gnostic separation from the music being sung, but is rather intended to indicate that the entirety of the (I hesitate to use the term) “experience” is such that all the pieces are in harmony, both in aesthetics and in intention.


In the end, this mythstory most likely persists because of the various aforementioned ideological precomittments it utilizes, and without necessarily commenting on the wider application of issues related to this mythstory, suffice to say that it is completely without foundation.




  • This is not necessarily in disagreement, but I do have a perspective on Luther’s use of music. (As an aside, The Wesley’s of course did not purposely choose drinking songs to write music to.) During the time of the Reformation there was an upheaval in the music of the church of which Luther was at the forefront. There was a great effort to write new music and translate some pieces from the mass into the german vernacular. This was for the purpose of instructing the theologically illiterate congregation in proper doctrine. Also the use of polyphonic chant was largely abandoned in favor of the chorale for the same purpose. In chorale singing notes are mostly sung at the same time and so are more easily understood and consequently learned and memorized. This was to counteract the Roman notion that the layman could not properly interpret the bible and therefore had no business studying theology. This was in keeping with the hierarchal construct of the Roman popish church, resulting from their erroneous interpretation of Matt. 14.
    There was a definite difference in “church music” of the mass and “secular music” in Luther’s day and Luther adopted the latter. One big change was from through-composed to strophic songs. The strophic having repeated melodies that could be learned much more easily. Absolutely these changes were not without compromise and overlaps, but a change did occur. However I do agree that Luther was not redeeming songs out of the world for the church’s use. There’s a whole lot more to say on this.

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