The devil and the best tunes

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Jul 9 15:09:51 UTC 2009

One apparently has one's choice -- George Whitefield, the Wesleys,
Rowland Hill ("evangelist and hymn writer ... referring to his
predecessor Charles Wesley"), William Booth (founder of the Salvation
Army), perhaps others.

The saying apparently is in "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of
Proverbs" (snippet view) and is in "The Wordsworth Dictionary of
Proverbs" (which claims Hill).  The excellent "Yale Book of Quotations" ...

 From 1787 {EAN]:  Headline: Anecdote; Article Type:
News/Opinion.  Paper: New-York Journal, published as The New-York
Journal, and Daily Patriotic Register; Date: 11-24-1787; Volume: XLI;
Issue: 52; Page: [4]; Location: New York, New York. The anecdote
situates the saying with the disputes in Charleston, .S.C., between
Whitefield and Alexander Garden, commissary for the Bishop of London
and Episcopalian rector there.
"... Garden ... took occasion to declaim with some heat, against the
light and trifling tunes used in Whitefield's church, as being too
theatrical and gay for holy worship, and such as has been long
appropriated to prophane songs and airs.---Very true, Doctor, said
Whitefield in his next lecture, but pray, [S]ir, can you assign any
good reason why the Devil should always be in possession of the best tunes?"

(Similarly in 1808:  Headline: Biographical Anecdotes; Article Type:
News/Opinion.  Paper: Guardian, published as The Guardian; Date:
04-16-1808; Volume: I; Issue: 22; Page: 86; Location: Albany, New York.)

 From 1791 [Google Books]:  The earliest instance revealed to me here
is without the superlative.  "The Monthly Review; or, Literary
Journal, Enlarged: From September to December, inclusive,
M,DCC,XCI.", Vol. VI (London, 1791), page 555.  A footnote says:
"When a friend of Whitefield observed, that many of the Methodist's
hymns were sung to tunes which had, originally, been adopted  to
compositions of a lighter nature, he gravely replied, 'Why should the
devil have all the good tunes?'"

 From 1805 [EAN], by now Wesley:  Headline: Anecdotes; Article Type:
News/Opinion.  Paper: Political Observatory; Date: 02-23-1805;
Volume: II; Issue: 67; Page: [4]; Location: Walpole, New Hampshire.
"When the late Mr. Wesley was asked, by an over-rigid fanatic, why he
wrote a hymn to a tune selected from the Oratoris [sic] of Judas
Macabaeus?---the good old clergyman replied, that heaven was pleased
with beholding mankind cheerful as well as devout---and as for
borrowing a melody from the drama, he thought himself justified---as
it was unreasonable that the devil should keep all the good tunes to
himself.  [Chron."

I doubt if Whitefield would have thought taking something from "the
drama" was acceptable---he did not countenance dancing---but
apparently "prophane songs" were OK.

 From 1824, in application:  Headline: Bethel; Article Type:
News/Opinion   Paper: Connecticut Mirror; Date: 08-09-1824; Volume:
XVI; Issue: 8; Page: [3]; Location: Hartford, Connecticut [EAN]
"When Whitefield was enquired of, why the Methodists in their singing
adopted the ranting lilts of the world, instead of more solemn music,
he said that he would not let the Devil have all the good tunes, and
this may emphatically be applied to sailors."


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