Copyright free hymns

For me, the biggest stumbling block for livestreaming worship services has always been copyright issues.

Especially troublesome are hymns.

Many of the most popular hymn tunes are protected by copyright. Even if a tune is in the public domain, the arrangement may be copyrighted (and it can be difficult to find out if the arrangement is, in fact, copyrighted). Even if the arrangement is copyrighted, some people will claim copyright for their typesetting of the hymn. If a hymn is protected in any way under copyright, you’re not supposed to photocopy or project or electronically disseminate the printed version of the hymn; if any part of the music is protected under copyright, you’re not supposed to broadcast audio of it. No, not even if you own hymnals with the hymn: owning a hymnal just allows you to use the hymn in an in-person event such as an in-person worship service.

The solution to this problem: copyright free hymns.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting copyright free hymns and spiritual songs. I have huge disorganized files (both electronic and hard copy) of public domain tunes and texts and arrangements. I’ve pulled many songs from the great early African American collections, including Slave Songs of the U.S. (1868), the Fisk Jubilee Singers songbook (1873), and Cabin and Plantation Songs, assembled by the Hampton Institute (1901). Although most of the hymns I’ve found are Christian, I’ve also found some good hymns and songs with Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, Ethical Culture, or secular content. All the hymns I’ve found would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service; indeed, many of them are public domain versions of hymns in our current hymnal that are protected by copyright in some way.

I’ve just put 24 of these copyright free hymns and spiritual songs in a Google Drive folder here.

I’ll put a list of the songs currently in the folder below the fold. And I’ll be adding more copyright free hymns and spiritual songs as I find time to produce fair copies of the versions I have.

A thumbnail view of a copyright free hymn

Copyright free hymns and spiritual songs now in the folder:

Amazing Grace
Some people prefer to add a fermata on the first note of the seventh measure, and on the final note. This arrangement is only moderately good, but it’s copyright free!

Ancient Mother
This chant emerged from the late 20th century North American Pagan community. It is typically sung repeatedly for 3 or more minutes.

Buddha’s Hymn of Victory
Words Gautama Buddha supposedly said upon achieving enlightenment, from two English translations, and set to “Windham,” one of the most popular late 18th century American hymn tunes.

City of Our Hopes
Text by Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement. Also known as “Hail, the Glorious Golden City.” The tune is the familiar “Hyfrodol,” in a robust late 19th century gospel arrangement.

Down by the Riverside
The tune and arrangement are taken from the earliest publication of this tune. Some of the verses are of unknown origin.

Down in the Valley To Pray
There are many different versions of the tune, including many recorded by Euro-American bluegrass and country singers; this is an African American version from the earliest known publication of the tune, in the 1867 book Slave Songs of the U.S.

For the Beauty of the Earth
The traditional hymn, with text variants from early 20th century Unitarian hymnals.

Forward through the Ages
Text by Unitarian minister Frederick Hosmer, and tune by Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, this hymn was the favorite of Dana Greeley, first president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Get on Board
This version published in 1873 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first internationally known African American singing ensemble.

How Can I Keep from Singing?
This is not an old Quaker song, as is claimed in many hymnals and songbooks. The original text came from a poem published in a newspaper in the late 19th century, and the tune is by the well-known gospel song-writer Robert Lowry. The third verse, written in 1950 by Doris Plenn, was the subject of litigation when Enya recorded this verse, thinking it was a public domain song. Pete Seeger’s publishing company sued her, claiming copyright, but in litigation the court determined that Seeger did not have a good claim to the copyright, and that Plenn had intended the verse to go into the public domain.

Hail the Glorious Golden City
See: “City of Our Hopes”

I’m on My Way
The arrangement came from a photocopy I once had of a late 19th century anonymous arrangement; it is uninspired, but copyright free!

Jacob’s Ladder
This version is from the Hampton Institute, with added anonymous verses.

Joyful, Joyful
Although often attributed to Ludwig van Beethoven, the music is actually an arrangement based on Beethoven by Edward Hodges, from the late 19th century Trinity Church Collection. Some people will tell you that this tune is not the way Beethoven wrote it, and they’re absolutely correct; but this is, in fact, the way Hodges arranged it. After looking at Beethoven’s score for the Ninth Symphony, I decided I appreciated Hodges’s ability to make something that’s singable by us ordinary mortals.

Lo, the Eastertide Is Here
A lovely text by Frederick Hosmer, paired here with a charming and catchy tune by the great American composer William Billings.

Mother Moon
An anonymous late 20th century North American chant from the Pagan community. The first verse can be sung repeatedly as a chant; sing for three minutes or so. Or the other anonymous verses may be added to make a short song.

Now Shall My Inward Joys
A brilliant choral miniature by William Billings. This tune deserves to be better known.

Oh, Freedom
This song is best known from the versions sung during the Civil Rights Movement, but this late-19th / early-20th century arrangement from the Hampton Institute is quite good.

O Life That Maketh All Things New
A classic Unitarian text by Samuel Longfellow, paired with the classic hymn tune “Truro.”

Sioux Song
Many Native Americans wound up at the Hampton Institute (of which the primary residents were African Americans). This song was recorded at the Hampton Institute, and translated by them, in the late 19th century. Although chord suggestions are provided, this chant is best sung a capella. A transliteration of the original Sioux words is also provided.

Study War No More
See: “Down by the Riverside”

Sun Don’t Set in the Morning
A rousing zipper song from the African American tradition.

There Is More Love Somewhere
Go listen to the Alan Lomax recording of Bessie Jones singing this song. The transcription does not do justice to Jones’ many subtle variations on the basic tune; there is no reason to sing this song exactly the same way every verse. Jones sang this a capella.

Wade in the Water
A classic African American song, as transmitted in the early 21st century folk music scene. For another public domain version, Harry T. Burleigh did a marvelous version (also in D minor) with a delightful piano accompaniment.

We’ll Stand the Storm
From the Fisk Jubilee Singers, this song deserves to be better known.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Often assumed to be a folk song, the text was published in 1880, and the tune is by the great late-19th century gospel composer Charles Gabriel.

One thought on “Copyright free hymns”

  1. Bless you Daniel! You provide the most practical information for the many busy busy organists, ministers, worship leaders, etc.

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