Tag Archive for folk tunes

Redeeming God’s Music

This is the sixth in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

I had blogged a devotional reading that ended in my Advent hymn, Come, Our Lord!. The same day I received an email from a lady who kindly said that she liked the words to the hymn but wished it would have been set to a different tune. The hymn tune is OLD BLACK JOE, and she was offended by the music of minstrelsy.

Her response is understandable. A number of the hymn tunes I use have had such unsavory associations. No example is more striking than AUSTRIAN HYMN. The music was a classical melody by Joseph Haydn, but it served as the national anthem of Nazi Germany (under the title, “Deutschlandlied”). For those who suffered during that era, that tune surely aroused horrific visions of militant hatred. But today the tune bears glorious, Christ-honoring words, such as the classic hymn, Praise the Lord! Ye Heavens, Adore Him, and Fred Kaan’s moving translation, Christ Is Risen, Christ Is Living, as well as my See the Seed of Faith.

While I understand objections to using such tunes, I make no apologies for doing so. All music is God’s music, created by Him for His glory. Evil creates nothing. It is a void, a poverty, an absence of God. It can only pervert God’s good creation.

But God did not abandon His marvelous creation because evil corrupted it. He did not abandon me. He is redeeming this beautiful world and all that sin has tainted. As His grateful child and His servant, I am part of His redemption process. For me, that includes redeeming God’s music.

One of my favorite sources of hymn tunes is folk tunes. They have a creative variety, a warmth, and a life-centeredness that I find charming and irresistible. And in a day when much of the music we hear is far too complex for congregational use, folk tunes are often very singable and people-friendly. They may have to be revised and adapted to work well as hymn tunes, but the raw material is there. (And I am careful to only adapt tunes old enough to be in the public domain. I always avoid copyrighted melodies.)

A folk song about a man who accidentally killed his wife became As You Love, a Maundy Thursday hymn. Ephesians 1 began as a drinking song. A Life of Thanksgiving was a bawdy ballad. By Faith started life as a sea chantey. And numerous other hymns borrowed tunes from folk songs about war, love, personal loss, or ordinary daily life; hymns such as O Living God, A Thankful Heart, All We Need, God Is Speaking, and God Is Working All Around You.

Experience has proven time and again that God’s powerful truth transforms the musical vehicles that carry it. His praise sanctifies the vessels that bear it; that is, it sets those vessels apart for His use. All music is God’s music, and He is reclaiming it to proclaim His glory, His grace, and His good news for all people. We, His servants in music, are privileged to work with Him in this. We look forward to the day when every song will sing of Him alone.

Consider Fresh Sources

What raw materials do you use in your creative work? They may be physical materials, or they might be sources of ideas or inspiration. Have you considered using fresh materials or fresh sources? Let me tell you about my experience.

Though my formal training is as a composer, in my earlier years I primarily wrote lyrics for other composers to set to music. On the rare occasions when I wrote hymns on my own, I primarily wrote them to fit familiar hymn tunes. Of course, I am always careful to only write lyrics to tunes that are already in the public domain. “Public domain” means they are too old to still be under copyright. Thus they are free for anyone to use however they wish.

I still write lots of hymns to familiar hymn tunes. Many congregational song leaders strongly prefer these hymns because they involve no teaching. The congregation already knows the tune, so you just give them the new text, and they’re ready to sing. I try to write a steady supply of such hymns. It’s a way I can serve those congregational song leaders who would gladly use a new hymn if they don’t have to struggle to teach a new tune.

But I enjoy going beyond the finite supply of familiar and well-used hymn tunes. I find it creatively stimulating, and it is an investment in the future. Sometimes I write original hymn tunes myself.

But many years ago I discovered folk tunes. It began with Christmas carols. I realized that many familiar Christmas tunes either lacked Christian texts entirely, or their texts were so archaic that congregations rarely sang them. So I began writing accessible new hymn texts to these tunes. Here are just a few of many: Peace, Peace, Peace; Infinite Lord; Here We Come Rejoicing; Jesus, the Gift of Christmas; and My Soul Exalts You Lord. Our most widely used hymn is one of these: Love Has Come!

Beautiful Christmas tunes in the public domain drew my attention to folk tunes in general. I began buying printed collections of folk tunes and going through them, tune by tune, looking for those that might make interesting and singable hymn tunes. I had had no idea how many multiplied thousands of public domain folk tunes are to be found in various cultures around the world! What an incredible resource! I started a file of tunes that might work as hymn tunes, broken down by tempo (“down”, moderate, and “up”). Most needed arranging. Many needed some degree of revision to work for my purposes, and some needed almost complete rewriting.

But the arranging and rewriting were well worth the effort. This massive body of tunes from various times and cultures provided far greater variety and creative range than a single composer like me could ever hope to match. And because they were written for the common folk to sing, they were often inherently congregational.

In the years since, I’ve written hundreds of hymns based on folk tunes. Here are only a handful of samples: O Living God; All We Need; By Faith; Christ the Lord Is with Us!; and Ephesians 1.

Then I discovered that classical melodies could also be a rich resource for hymn tunes. Unlike folk tunes, they are not inherently congregational. They require more patient searching and more thorough rewriting. But they richly repay the effort. A few of my favorites are: Be Still, My Child; Bless This Seed; Breath of Life; Christ and His Bride; Isaiah 53; Jesus, Full of Truth and Grace; Our Destiny Is Jesus Christ; and The Father’s Face.

But folk and classical melodies have enriched my writing in another way. When I write to familiar hymn tunes, I generally start with a lyric idea, then go searching for a tune to match it. With folk and classical tunes, I’ve grown to enjoy starting with a tune that moves me. Then I write a text that fits it. This change has been creatively stimulating and enriching.

The point is this: whatever your field of creative endeavor, don’t overlook the beautiful, infinitely varied raw materials all around you. You may find them fresh, inspiring, and deeply relevant, no matter what their age. Apply your imagination to transforming what is already available. Give it your own touch. Or let these existing materials inspire fresh directions for your own work.

If the existing material has a copyright notice, or if it was created in the last 90 years, you should probably leave it alone. But don’t be afraid to draw from resources that our Creator has already placed at your fingertips.