Sunday, July 05, 2015

Luther and Apocryphal Attribution

In April 2005, A. E. Stallings published "Triolet Apocryphally Attributed To Martin Luther" in Poetry:

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,   
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?   
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons   
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

When I read the poem in the magazine, I immediately grabbed my guitar and began strumming around, and in a few minutes, I had set the poem to music. 

In the meantime, the song has become a staple of my band Human Shields. It's a very short and punky song, and you can watch a video of it on Facebook here.

The other day, I linked to that video, and a Facebook friend wondered about the attribution to Martin Luther. It was not that she disputed the quotation's apocryphal nature, but that she had never heard the line attributed to Luther. She also said that it did not sound like Luther to her.

Now, I can never resist pursuing the attribution of a quotation, and I am very sympathetic to my friend's sense that it didn't sound like Luther – many false attributions can be detected by how the quotations do not sound at all like anything Mark Twain or whoever would actually say. But first I just wanted to find a few cases of people attributing the line to Luther.

I found quite a few, with the interesting caveat that every single case of attribution to Luther mentioned that the quotation is surely apocryphal. But one case found something in Luther's Table Talk that sounded a bit like the line; more precisely, the passage that follows is from Richard Friedenthal's 1967 biography of Luther:
Luther's intentions were strict; he wanted to eliminate the profane songs entirely. How had it happened, he asked, that in the secular field there 'are so many fine poems and so many beautiful songs, while in the religious field we have such rotten, lifeless stuff?' What is undeniable is that he injected his own fire into the genre, wherever the tunes and words may have come from. 'The devil has no need of all the good tunes for himself,' he remarked, and took them away from him.
The reference is to "WA TR 5, no. 5603" (Werkausgabe Tischreden), so I found the original in a 1919 edition:

Wie geht es zu, das wir in carnalibus so manch fein poem und so manch schön carmen haben, und in spiritualibus haben wir so faul, kalt ding?
(Translation here.)

As is so often the case with apocryphal attribution, there might be something that has led people to make the attribution (though of course attributions are also often just made up out of whole cloth). So in the case, Luther did say something that contrasted "carnal" art and "spiritual" art, and he did so in the context of music. But he didn't put it the way that the apocryphal attribution puts it, and the devil was not involved.

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