Melody of "Little Town of Bethlehem" different in UK than in US?

This surprised me when I looked up the hymn in Wikipedia:
I know that the music for hymns has, in the past, been much more mutable than it is today. On a recent visit to Sturbridge Village, the organist at the restored Church gave us demonstrations of hymns being sung with different music – they had separate books with the music and the lyrics, and could mix and match if the meter worked out*.
It has been pointed out in multiple threads here that you can sing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” to different music, often hilariously different ( like the version I heard sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”) But this is the first time that I heard the hymn was actually sung to different music on purpose and in a large portio n of the world.
The Wikipedia article claims some Episcopalians do this, too, in the US. The ones i know don’t. So I have to ask – do any Dopers, in the UK or elsewhere, sing this to a different music than you hear in US movies or recordings?

*This, the organist explained, is why “Star Spangled Banner” is so unsingable. The song “To Anacreon in Heaven” was, I knew, a drinking song. But apparently they made these songs difficult to sing – with huge vocal ranges and the like – because they were sung in drinking competitions, and you wanted to trip up your opponents with something a drunkard would have difficulty with. If this is true, it’s not clear why we didn’t switch over to a more forgiving tune long ago.

This site apparently gives the other tune:

Here’s the Sheet Music:

I’ve never heard a different tune for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But, at some point in my youth, my church got new hymnals, and the melody they had for “Away In a Manger” was not the old familiar one (with all descending notes in the first line), but a different one. At first I was scandalized—that’s not the right tune!—but eventually I came to prefer this alternative tune, and to find the familiar one musically insipid. By which time the church had apparently decided that people wanted to sing the familiar tune, so they always went with that one.

I generally prefer the British tunes for O Little Town and Away in a Manger, but the American tune for It Came Upon a Midnight Clear blows the British one away.

Moved MPSIMS --> Cafe Society.

Okay. Now it’s news to me that Away in a Manger and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear have different UK tunes, as well. I’ve never heard these alternate versions, or heard of them.
I’ve known things the other way around – tunes used for Christmas Carols and for non-carol songs – What Child is This is clearly Greesleeves, and Oh, Christmas Tree is the Civil War song Maryland, My Maryland, but I didn’t realize it worked the other way around.
Are there any more of these multiple-tuned carols?

I’ve sung “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to two different melodies.


Apparently the melody of Silent Night, while the same, was in a more upbeat tempo.

And this is a surprise:

So the Standard melody for The Twelve Days of Christmas, like “Happy Birthday”, is still under copyright!!

I wasn’t aware there was a different tune in the US. I only know one, and I know it as the tune of Little Town of Bethlehem (maybe it’s cribbed form another song, but if so I don’t know the other one, either).

No idea if it’s the same as the tune you sing in the US. I’ve not seen (noticed) the song being sung in a US show or movie, so I’ve nothing to compare it to. And I’ve no idea how to describe it on a messageboard!

AH - this is the song as I know it:

I think it’s well known among church musicians that there are different settings. It’s pretty common to ask “Forest Green or St. Louis?” when the director announces that you’re singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (the different settings for “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” are, I think, less well known).

I sing in a professional a capella choir that tends to do thematic concerts (and seasons). Two years ago we did an “Old World Christmas” which included all the British settings. Last year it was a “New World Christmas” where we sang the American settings.

An amusing anecdote that our (British) director told our (American) choir: he grew up, of course, with the British settings. Upon coming to America, he found out that there are American versions of the two hymns. “Typical Americans,” he thought, “taking a perfectly good hymn and re-writing it.” Then he found out that the American versions were written first. Oops.

Candyman74, here is the American melody, sung (ironically) by the King’s Singers (with the typical British pronunciation of “Bethlehem”).

That’s exactly what happened with my parents’ church, too! Only now when I go for my annual Christmas Eve Contractual Agreement it’s a toss-up which one we get.

Episcopalian here - I’m familiar with three tunes for “O Little Town” and at my church we do indeed sing the common English tune. I think both tunes are in the ECUSA 1983 Hymnal, but I’m not positive.

I grew up mainly Baptist and it took some adjustment when I turned Episcoplian because quite a few hymns use different tunes, but I’ve gotten used to the Anglican way now.

I’m an American who lived in England for two years as a kid (think 7th and 8th grades), and there were definitely different melodies for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away In A Manger.” I prefer the British ones to this day. In fact, just last weekend I went to a service of lessons and carols with my dad and we were both happy to see that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was going to use the Forest Green melody. :slight_smile:

Hark1 The Herald Angels Sing!_The_Herald_Angels_Sing

The melodies to all of the following songs are interchangeable:

Mickey Mouse Club Theme Song
Stairway to Heaven
House of the Rising Sun
Yankee Doodle
Pop Goes the Weasel
Peaceful Easy Feeling
I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing
Yellow Rose of Texas
Ghost Riders of the Sky
Rocky Top
Lion Sleeps Tonight
Tangled Up in Blue
Whiter Shade of Pale
Light My Fire
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Jingle Bells
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Jolly Old St. Nicholas
The First Noel
O Tannenbaum
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Marines’ Hymn
Wabash Cannonball
America the Beautiful
The Internationale
Onward Christian Soldiers
Ode to Joy
Mack the Knife
A Hundred Bottles of Beer
La Cucaracha
Semper Paratus
The Wearing of the Green
(The Rising of the Moon)
The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
Sympathy for the Devil
Rollin’ Down to Old Maui
Acres of Clams
Bread and Roses
Sink the Bismarck

Poems that apply:


Little Miss Muffet
Jack and Jill
Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
Little Jack Horner
Itsy Bitsy Spider
Mary Mary Quite Contrary

Anything by Emily Dickinson

That’s interesting, but not relevant to this thread. There have been plenty of threads in the past about which song lyrics could be sung to different tunes. This one is about Christmas Carols that are, as a regular practice, sung to completely different tunes among a large group of carolers.
That I can sing O Little Town of Bethlehem to the Mickey Mouse Club theme is good for a laugh or a stunt, but it isn’t at all comparable to the fact that folks in the UK and various Episcopalian churches in the US sing that carol to a completely different tune than the one I know.

a more reasonable addition would be to tell us if the same practice occurs in other English-speaking areas (Australia/ South Africa? New Zealand?) Or if this occurs in other languages.

Brit here, and after a bit of YouTubing I realise I’ve never heard the US version at all.

It’s also not quite accurate: the meters may be interchangeable, but the melodies are not.

I find that keeping the music the same, but changing the words (as in my post at 10:52) is called a Contrafactum. Song parodies by Mad magazine , Weird Al Yankovic, and the Capitol Steps are all contrafacta. As are Maryland, my Maryland and What Child is This.

I haven’t found a word for keeping the lyrics the same but changing the music, though. Maybe there isn’t one.

Angels from the Realms of Glory. Not extremely popular any more, but one I know, at least in the US version:

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks seems to have the most different musical versions of any “traditional” carol:

I think you mean “O Tannenbaum”.