What’s in a Song

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the urban legend of hymnody was just that…urban legend!

Now for some, you may wonder what I’m even talking about and who cares?!? And in the eternal scheme, there’s no reason for anyone to care. This whole discussion started when our church board was having a discussion about what kind of music was appropriate for worship. I was starting a new service, had my worship team (aka music people) together when I was asked about the music. “You aren’t really considering non-acoustical instruments, are you?”

I hadn’t even anticipated music being an issue! (Well, I had, but I was choosing to listen to “them” and then do what was going to be best for the service.) After all, I was tasked with growing the church, especially tapping into the huge student population at the nearby university. We’re talking about a generation who has never set foot in a church…ever! They didn’t even know what a hymn was, much less the tune.

That’s when one of my worship team spoke up mentioning that the founding fathers of the Methodist movement (this was a Methodist church) set their hymns to bar tunes. The PhD music director informed all of us that was a myth and that the Wesleys would never have conceived for using drinking songs for hymn texts. We then received a lecture in Church Music 101.

Thankfully, I had remained silent during this whole discussion because I also thought the Wesleys had utilized popular songs for hymn melodies. Well, they did use secular tunes, but they did not use drinking song-tunes.

Why do I bring all this up? This day, March 3, 1931, The Star-Spangled Banner became the United States’ national anthem. Up until then, the country did not have its own anthem. Francis Scott Key witnessed the 1814 battle between a British ship and Fort McHenry in Baltimore and wrote a poem originally titled In Defence of Fort McHenry. When he showed his brother-in-law the poem, he saw that it fit the popular melody of The Anacreontic Song, by English composer John Stafford Smith and the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London.

The song, set to Key’s poem, became increasingly popular through the 19th century. President Woodrow Wilson ordered that The Star-Spangled Banner be played at military and other appropriate events. The rest, as they say, is history.

As our church board meeting was concluding, I was asked outright about my decision regarding non-acoustic instruments for the new worship service. I replied, “We will go ahead as planned. And, for your information: our organ is not an acoustical instrument. It has electronic parts.”

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