It was Jan. 22, 1882. William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, was scheduled to preach at a meeting in a theater in Worcester, England. Such a large crowd assembled that a news report said the General himself "had great difficulty in getting in."
During the meeting George "Sailor" Fielder, a former sea captain, was asked to sing a solo. He chose "Praise His Name, He Sets Me Free." The Founder was impressed. "That was a fine song," he said to Fielder. "What was the tune?"
Somewhat embarrassed, Fielder responded, "General, that's a dreadful tune. It's 'Champagne Charlie.' "
But the General was not put off. Turning to his son Bramwell, he exclaimed, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?"
The Salvation Army wasn't the first religious organization to use secular tunes with sacred texts. When Martin Luther and his associates, in the early 16th century, introduced congregational singing into worship services, they often used folk tunes well known to their congregations.
But The Salvation Army took the notion a step further. Not only did Booth's people use folk songs; they also converted drinking songs to their own purposes.
In addition to adapting "Champagne Charlie," they converted the lyric "Here's to good old whiskey, drink it down" to "Storm the forts of darkness, bring them down"; the tune "How Dry I Am" became "O happy day that fixed my choice."
An early pamphlet stated the Army's position on the subject: "all music [is] sacred when used with holy purposes."
General Booth's question, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" was a matter he obviously had considered earlier than his Worcester experience. Two years earlier, writing in The War Cry, the official publication of The Salvation Army, he said, "Secular music, do you say, belongs to the devil? ... Every note, every strain, every harmony is divine, and belongs to us."
Through the years the Founder's judgment has proved sound. Today, with regularity, Salvationists sing heartily to secular tunes, including "Home on the Range," "I Traced Her Little Footsteps through the Snow," "Marching through Georgia," "Mother Machree," "Men of Harlech," "A Little Ship," "The Old Rustic Bridge," and scores of others. So much a part of Army hymnody have these tunes become that most Salvationists sing them with no thought that they may once have "belonged to the devil."