I was visiting a Methodist library of old and rare materials when I came across a tiny hymnbook from the early-1800s. And I do mean tiny—it was no more than 2.5 x 4.5 inches, and I could hold it in the palm of my hand. I carefully opened it and revealed to my host that early hymnbooks were actually collections of poetry…no accompanying music or even music suggestions.
You see, for the longest time hymns were chanted, rather like today’s rap. They were composed for three similar meters, the most popular being “ballad meter”—stanzas of four iambic lines (da-DUM chuck-chuck, da-DUM chuck-chuck). Dickinson and Wordsworth used this style regularly in their poems.
And it’s still popular today. Remember the TV show “Gilligan’s Island”? The show’s theme song, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” is written in ballad meter. Sing along with it:
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful trip.
That started from this tropic port,
aboard this tiny ship.
Now let’s try something…ridiculous. Let’s take the Gilligan song and apply these words:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Surprisingly fun, isn’t it? If you’re aghast at this exercise, you’ll understand exactly what Martin Luther was up against when he started setting hymns to established folk tunes. Yeah…just another item on the Pope’s long list of reasons to excommunicate him. But, man, did the public love Luther for it. They sang loudly and lustily, memorizing long poems of praise, adoration and contemplation—poems many congregants couldn’t even read.
During a recent radio interview, the host asked me what I thought of today’s musicians “reinventing” hymns with different styles and melodies. I said, “I think it’s great!” And I meant it. Dozens of different tunes accompanied Newton’s iconic hymn before the now-famous melody, “New Britain,” was adopted in 1835—and even that has been tweaked into our modern version. Anything a musician can do to reintroduce such poignant words to a hungering public is worthwhile, in my way of thinking.
Now go find yourself some iambic lines and hum them. Neither Luther nor Gilligan would mind.