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Methodist Hymns May, or May Not Be Based on Tavern Tunes


There's a myth circulating among Methodists in the United States. Many believe the denomination's founders, John and Charles Wesley, based their hymns on tavern tunes that were popular in 18th century England. The idea is that the brothers wrote new lyrics to the tunes, in an effort to spread Christianity's message to people who spent their Sundays in taverns, rather than at church.

But Methodist scholar, Dean McIntyre, who studies sacred music says this story simply isn't true, and he thinks it's important for church leaders to understand that.

While he's adamant in his assertion that the Wesley brothers did not base their hymns on tavern tunes, he says he never intended to expose the idea as a myth. In fact, he says as a child, he rather enjoyed the notion that some of the hymns he was singing were based on lewd and crude melodies sung by sailors more than 200 years ago. "This was an idea that I had grown up with," he said. "I had heard this in a Sunday school class, or in worship in a sermon, or in a summer camp, or a music camp, or any of those things that I would have attended. I don't know where I heard it first, but I grew up with it. And my experience has been that for my entire life, that that's the case probably with most United Methodists today."

Mr. McIntyre says as the music director for the Church's national Board of Discipleship, he has encountered hundreds of Methodists who believe their hymns were once tavern tunes. He says the idea is a seductive one, because it appeals to Americans' sense of equality and gives the Methodist faith an almost democratic spirit. "We would like to think of John and Charles Wesley as people who would have such an evangelistic zeal, that they would go out into the taverns, and that in their desire to bring the sinner into the church, and into the faith, that they even would take the music of their sinful lifestyle, so that they could feel comfortable in the church when they sang sacred words to the secular music," said Deam McIntyre. "Now, we want to believe that of the Wesleys. The truth is, it didn't happen. They didn't do it."

Dean McIntyre should know. He has spent years combing through the personal papers of the Wesley brothers, and nowhere, he says, has he found any mention of the practice of turning drinking songs into hymns. He insists if the Wesleys had been in the habit of doing this, they would have written about it. He notes the two brothers were meticulous about explaining how, when, where, and why their hymns should be sung. But they never expressed their approval of secular music in worship services.

Yet, Mr. McIntyre says the myth that they did is being used to justify the use of rock and rap music in present-day Methodist worship. "How much of rock culture are you going to put into the worship of your congregation in its hymnal? How far can you go with 'acid' rock, for instance? Does that have a place in the worship of God through music in the Church? Many say it does. Many say it doesn't. Of course, the fact that it does or doesn't is another issue. My point is we should never point to John Wesley as a person to approve of that practice," he said.

Dean McIntyre says the notion that the Wesleys based their songs on tavern tunes probably came about as a result of some confusion over the meaning of the musical term "bar form". A "bar" can, of course, be a synonym in American English for the word "tavern." But it's also a term that's used to describe a particular type of melody, that follows what Dean McIntyre calls an "AAB" pattern. "The classic blues are in bar form," he said. "You think of 'I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come.' Well, that's the first A form. And then it repeats, 'I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come.' That's the second A. And then you get, 'They've got some crazy little women there and I'm going to get me one.' That's the B. So we have AAB. It's a bar for."

But Mr. McIntyre says there was one instance in 1746, when historians believe Charles Wesley did, in fact, re-write the lyrics of a popular drinking song. "You know, the Wesleys would go out into the town square and preach, because they were denied use of the Anglican pulpit in England," said Dean McIntyre. "And so one day, Charles is out preaching in a town square. And as had happened, a group of sailors came and stood along the edges of the crowd that Charles had attracted and was preaching to, and began to interrupt his preaching. And they began to sing a song. The tune was Nancy Dawson, which was a British folk song, and went to a number of texts. But the words they were singing to this tune were sexual in nature, and included things like drinking. It would have been a tavern song. And so Charles interrupted his sermon, pointed to the sailors out on the edge of the crowd and addressed them specifically, and invited them to return to the evening service. And he would have a song that they really should sing. So that broke up the event, and the sailors went their way, and Charles went back to his apartment, that afternoon, and he penned the words of a hymn, the first line of which is 'Listed into the cause of sin, why should a good be evil?' He wrote these words to the tune of Nancy Dawson.

The other lyrics to the song say, "Music alas too long has been, pressed to obey the devil. Drunken or lewd or light the lay, fell to the soul's undoing. Widen the truth with flowers alay, down to eternal ruin."

Today, the tune is also a popular nursery rhyme, entitled Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush.

Dean McIntyre says the fact that Charles Wesley modified a tavern tune once, doesn't mean the founders of Methodism made a habit out of it. But he doesn't expect Methodists are going to give up their myth easily. The fact is, they like believing it, and Mr. McIntyre says that wouldn't be such a bad thing, if the myth hadn't gotten caught up in a very important debate about the use of secular music in the Church. He, himself, doesn't have a solid opinion on the issue. But he's sure of one thing - John and Charles Wesley would not have approved.

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