About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Thursday 17 May 2012

While Shepherds Watched on Ilkley Moor

And now, in a welcome break from my narcissistic fashion ramblings, I am turning my attention to hymns.  Hymns and their tunes.  Or rather, hymns which fit to tunes other than their own traditional one.

Ask most churchgoers about hymn-tune replacement and they will be able to tell you that you can sing 'There is a green hill far away' to the tune of 'The House of the Rising Sun.'  They will probably also know that 'While shepherd's watched their flocks by night' goes to 'On Ilkley Moor baht 'at'.  'The angel of the Lord came down (Lord came down)!'  By the same token, you can sing a highly florid version of Ilkley Moor to the tune of 'O for a thousand tongues'. 'Where hast tha be-e-e-een since I-I sa-aw thee? On Ilkley Moor baht 'at, on I-I-I-I-Ilkey Moor baht 'at!'  That was the tune 'Lyngham' rendered into prose, by the way.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Last night, in an idle moment I asked Twitter for more examples.  The result is that I have spent the day wandering around the house singing 'Immortal, invisible God only wise' to The Wombles theme tune.  I was also alerted to the possibility of singing that wedding favourite 'Love divine all love's excelling' to 'O my darling Clementine'.  Ooh! as I typed that, I realised it also goes to 'Now the carnival is over' as well.  

Both those tunes, however, have a slightly solemn church-appropriate ring to them.  They could work in the context of worship.  The same cannot be said of The Wombles.  Therefore for maximum subversive pleasure, the tune's style and associations need to be at odds with the hymn.  My suggestion for 'Love divine' would be 'All the nice girls love a sailor'.  Another high scorer here is the Medieval Latin hymn 'Tantum ergo' to the tune of 'I'm forever blowing bubbles'; along with 'O Jesus I have promised' to The Muppets theme tune.

Traditional hymn tunes are readily interchangeable because they are (usually) in recognisable metres.  The metrical index of a hymn book is a handy resource for the subversively minded.  Anything in common metre  (CM) fits to Ilkley Moor, for example.  This means that if you can identify the metre of a tune, let's say The Archers, you can then look up hymns that share the same metrical structure.  With a spot of shoe-horning--or as musicians like to say 'anacrucis'--'We plough the fields and scatter' (76 76 D and Refrain) fits.  Provided you sing the word 'plough' on the first 'TUM' you'll be fine.  Well, I think so.  I'm currently arguing with one of the lay vicars about this. 'we PLOUGH the FIELDS and SCA-a-tter the GOOD seed O-on the LAND!'  Where's the problem?

The church has been ransacking popular culture for its hymns for centuries.  Did not Bach himself pinch tunes from tavern songs?  (Needs citation, as Wiki says, but I think I heard that somewhere).  Twitter tells me of an Agnus Dei to Billy Joel's 'Just the way you are', indeed, of an entire Billy Joel Mass setting.  Also an Ave Maria to the Eastenders tune.  As a child in Sunday School we sang a chorus to the Match of the Day theme.  It goes on and on.  

Thank you to all the tweeps who provided these ghastly examples.  I would love to tell you all that 'Shine Jesus shine' goes to 'Who let the dogs out'.  But sadly, I don't think it's true.  Even with anacrucis.


  1. For a few months when I lived in the wilds of northern Scotland, I went to a presbyterian church of the unaccompanied psalm singing tradition. Mostly we sang to fairly dull tunes. But the first week I went, we sang one psalm to the tune of If You're Happy And You Know It, to which I struggled to keep a straight face while surrounded by dour Scots. And on the Sunday before 25th December (which is not to be celebrated as Christmas, oh no!) we sang a psalm to the tune of While Shepherds Watched. I think the precentor was singing a slightly different tune, but it was near enough for the rest of the congregation to sing the carol.

  2. No, I'm afraid Bach didn't. You're probably thinking of the old myth that Luther took tavern songs (bar tunes) and set hymns to them. Well, it turns out that the 'bar tune' was the name for a particular type of ABA form of melody, popular at the time, and which many of Luther's hymn tunes used.

    The one time when he did take a popular tune (for the Christmas hymn 'Vom Himmel hoch', used by Bach in the Christmas oratorio), when he found that people were struggling to distance the tune from the original, rather irreverent words, he went and wrote a fresh tune, the one we now know.

    That said, a very entertaining post with some deeply disturbing scenarios to contemplate! I'm now going to scour through my hymnals for words that do go to 'Who let the dogs out'.

  3. Thank you for putting me right about Bach. Let me know if you find a hymn that fits to Who Let the Dogs Out. Can't promise we'll be singing it in Lichfield cathedral, mind you.

  4. I've just read your post to my spouse who tells me that she remembers singing Father Hear the Prayer we offer to the tune of the Z Cars theme when she was at school. I too would love to know a hymn that would go to Who Let The Dogs Out.

    1. Yes, the Z-cars tune for 'Father hear the prayer' was pretty wide spread it seems. It's actually an old Scots folk tune.

  5. I sing "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" to "Veni, veni Emmanuel." You have to repeat a line, though, ideally the fourth because you want to sing "Fanuilos" to the trumpet blast.

  6. Scary story: my husband was leading a prayer meeting, a few years ago, when one of the 'old dears' (no offence)' began singing : 'My eyes are dim, I cannot see', all joined in,coz it sounded like an old chorus, until realisation dawned at the second line: 'I have not bought my specs with me..' This happens when you only know the beginning of stuff!!! The mis-singing of 'I hope to follow duly' as: 'I hope to follow Julie' used to get us Grammar School Girls doubled up in the back row in the 1960's - we had a Julie Bell in our class.

  7. "Shine Jesus Shine" may work with an extra shine. Er ... "Shine Jesus Shine - shine!". The additional Koo kook a choo (or whatever!) could be interpreted as an ectatic utterance in tongues.