Have you ever heard that Martin Luther took tavern songs and simply put his own words to them? I’ve even heard this about his song A Mighty fortress Is Our God (See this link, for an interesting evaluation of this claim).
This argument is put forth for various reasons. First, it is mentioned to disparage Luther. That is, Luther was a drinker and simply took pub music and tried to make it spiritual. Or it is sometimes put forth, Luther couldn’t come up with music, so he stole someone else’s. Lastly, some involved in Contemporary Christian Music use this argument to validate contemporary styles of music being used in church: if even the great Martin Luther found value in contemporary music being used in Church, shouldn’t we likewise do the same? Should there not be church services with rap, metal, reggae, techno, etc.? I mean, let’s be consistent. Luther used contemporary pub songs.
In a book that was given to me entitled, Why I Left The Contemporary Christian Music Movement, author Dan Lucarini cites John Makujina stating:
“Luther took the entire melody from only one secular song, ‘I Came from an Alien Country’ for ‘From Heaven on High, I Come to You’. It first appeared in 1535 but four years later was replaced by an original tune from Luther, not the borrowed one. The secular tune does not reappear until after his death. The tune’s use in worldly haunts would sully the sacred text and bring secular associations inappropriate to worship, so Luther replaced it.”
Source: Dan Lucarini, Why I Left The Contemporary Christian Music Movement (New York: Evangelical Press, 2002), p.107
The editors of Luther’s Works note:
“The first stanza [of ‘I Came from an Alien Country’] is actually patterned after a pre-Reformation secular folk song, a singing game popular with the young people in Luther’s time, that began with the lines:
Good news from far abroad I bring,
Glad tidings for you all I sing.
I bring so much you’d like to know
Much more than I shall tell you though.
After this verse the singer would propose a riddle to one of the girls, and unless she could solve it, she had to give him her wreath. Originally Luther used the lilting melody of this folk song for his Christmas carol [‘From Heaven on High, I Come to You’]. It is found in the earliest extant source, the Klug hymnal of 1535, and many subsequent hymnals. But with the increasing popularity of “From Heaven on High I Come to You,” he must have felt that the hymn deserved its own melody. The new music first appeared in the Schumann hymnal of 1539 and ultimately became the proper tune. Quite likely Luther wrote it himself, for it has the same beginning and the same strong emphasis on the upper tonic that are found in his melodies for “A New Song Here Shall Be Begun” and “Our God He Is a Castle Strong.” The earlier folk-song melody was ultimately assigned to “From Heaven the Angel Troop Came Near”… [LW 53:289].
Also, doing a brief web search, I found this little factoid:
“Dean McIntyre, director of music resources at the Board of Discipleship, recently debunked this popular story [Luther using contemporary pub music]. He states that this myth is often toldabout Martin Luther… McIntyre traces the legend to confusionover the terms "bar tune" or "bar form." These terms refer to a medieval pattern of poetry consisting of three or more stanzas. This pattern and terminology were later applied to songwriting. Along the way, "bar tune" was misinterpreted as "tavern music." Many of the most popular hymns are such "bar tunes." "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," "Come, thou Almighty King," and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" are just a few examples. This form is used for secular songs as well."
That music was important to Luther is common knowledge. Luther stated,
"…[N]ext to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions—to pass over the animals—which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found—at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate—and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find?" [LW 53:323]
“…[T]he gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.” [LW 53:323]
I have found those most interested in debunking Luther’s “bar songs” are those seeking to put a stop to the Contemporary Christian Music being used in the church. For instance, this webpage, Did Luther Use Tavern Music? Was put up by a Fundamental Baptist group. Dan Lucarini (Why I Left The Contemporary Christian Music Movement) was a former worship leader.
My own 2 cents on this is not as critical as the view put forth by these people. I go to a very conservative church, with traditional music (organ, piano, and the minister leads the hymn sing). We use primarily the CRC Psalter. I enjoy this way of worship, for a few reasons.
First, I have played guitar, bass, and Chapman Stick. I began on the guitar around age 13. I was in a lot of rock bands, eventually progressed to Jazz, New Age, and various other types of music. I know music well. I know when I see a good player. I know when someone should not be playing. I’ve attended many church services that had “worship bands.” There was simply no way I could ever worship, simply because of my own sinful evaluation of whomever was playing. Or, I’ve actually been to worship services where the musicians were trained professionals. I could not concentrate on worship because the players were too good. One particular bass player used to be the object of my worship when I saw him play! So, a traditional service brings me out of my element. I can actually concentrate on worship without being distracted by instruments I’m familiar with. Most of the people in my church have no idea I can play music. I like this, I will never seek to play music in church. I would be too interested in myself to actually worship.
Second, most of you Reformed folks already know this, but the content of the Psalter is God glorifying. It is actually theological and even if I don’t know the song, I can still glean from the words. To remind myself of the poor content of CCM worship music, I keep the following chorus on a page in my Bible. Now, I could probably sing this song to my wife, but worship God with this? Whoever wrote it was deluded:
Draw me close to You, Never let me go.
I lay it all down again To hear you say that I’m your friend
You are my desire, No one else will do,
‘Cause nothing else could take Your place;
To feel the warmth of Your embrace.
Help me find the way, Bring me back to you.
You’re all I want, You’re all I’ve ever needed.
You’re all I want
Help me know You are near.