July 2003 Archives

Hymns - Same words, different tunes
July 1, 2003 12:40 PM | Posted in: ,

Something different occurred during our Sunday School class time last Sunday. It's worth noting that the term "different" is not usually associated with anything of Southern Baptist origin, as we tend to like things nice and orderly and predictable. We're the Texas Aggies of denominations. 

But on this Sunday, we had substitute song leaders; they had come to us from the distant land of North Carolina and had brought strange new customs into our midst. One of those new customs involved singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of -- get this -- "Peaceful Easy Feeling," by those bastions of religious tradition, the Eagles. All the familiar words of the hymn were used, but we added a chorus, lifted right from the Eagles' song:
 
And I've got a peaceful, easy feeling;
I know He won't let me down.
'Cause I'm already standing
On solid ground.

OK...I'm kidding about almost everything up to this point, except the music itself. (And Southern Baptists. And Aggies.) Our church happens to be very open to different styles of music and worship, and our class itself is a model of religious and cultural diversity (for Midland, anyway) which often leads to interesting discussions. 

 Anyway, as we sang this version (and sang it quite well, I might add), I looked around the room and thought, "we're a bunch of old hippies!" Indeed, no one in the room had to be prompted to recall the tune. 

 This wasn't the first time that we'd "mistreated" this wonderful old hymn. At a previous party, we sang it to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun" (which always presents an interesting constrast of images, considering the subject matter of the song from which the tune is taken). It actually made for a very touching rendition. 

 Growing up in a churchy environment, I've always heard that many of the original old hymns were set to the popular tunes of the day, and many of those tunes had, shall we say, less-than-holy origins, namely taverns and other Shoppes of Ill Repute. Now, I'll admit that I've always been a little skeptical of these claims; surely the good tavern-goers of the 17th and 18th centuries could come up with melodies a little, um, peppier than what we hear. But perhaps the standards for peppiness were different back then. (Also, I couldn't find any confirmation of the "tavern origin theory of melody" when I employed my standard focused in-depth research methodology: a review of the first 10 hits in Google.) 

 Nevertheless, even if the tunes we associate with these hymns didn't arise from secular origins, the hymn phrasing often lends itself to a new, updated treatment, ala "Peaceful Easy Feeling" or "HOTRS." And, indeed, it would seem that this approach would lend itself to making such music more relevant or accessible to those with no church or religious background, and perhaps make it fresh to those who now sing it by mindless rote. 

 I suspect this musical "customization" goes on a lot more than I realize. I'd like to hear from others about similar examples of setting hymns to different tunes.

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