After reading Kate Bluett’s letter, a reader pointed us to this United Methodist News Service story that dubunks as popular myth the notion that John and Charles Wesley wrote their hymns with melodies from popular drinking songs:
[Dean] McIntyre [director of music resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.] says the legend began when a seminary or music student became confused over the musical term “bar tune” or “bar form”—a medieval pattern for poetry consisting of three or more stanzas—which became the pattern for songwriting. Someone with no knowledge of medieval poetry heard “bar form” in connection with John Wesley, and the songs became tavern songs, he says.
The “bar form” term is still used by songwriters today. The popular “Over the Rainbow” is written in this form, as are all of the classic blues. The bar form is most commonly used in hymns and folk songs, and a number of bar tunes accompanying text written by the Wesleys and Luther are found in the United Methodist Hymnal. Those songs include:
• “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” UMH 110.
• “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” UMH 139.
• “Come, thou Almighty King,” UMH 61.
• “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” UMH 298.
• “Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above,” UMH 96.
• “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” UMH 196.
• “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” UMH 384.
“I feel called to set the record straight,” McIntyre says. “It is not difficult to understand how the musical term ‘bar form’ also referred to as ‘bar tune,’ can be confused in an uninformed person’s mind with a barroom tune, drinking song, or some other title to indicate music to accompany the drinking of alcoholic beverages.”