“Buddha’s Hymn of Victory”

For this American sacred song, I’ve paired a classic eighteenth century psalm tune with an ancient Pali text translated by Charles Lanman, the great American scholar of Sanskrit. This is what Buddhas was supposed to have said when he at last acheived enlightenment, and was no longer bound to the endless cycle of rebirth. As a sort of extra bonus, the third verse is a translation by Paul Carus, a German immigrant to the United States, and a pioneering figure in the study of comparative religion (though today his scholarship seems quite dated).

Buddha’s Hymn of Victory (PDF) 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in., for use as an order of service insert.

The music is “Windham” by Daniel Read, one of the greatest of eighteenth century hymn tunes. This composition is usually paired with a text by Isaac Watts that begins “Broad is the road that leads to death…,” and tells how mortals can get to heaven. Even though the Christian path to heaven and the Buddhist path to nirvana are very different, the mood of the music seems to match both texts equally well.

“Pray When the Morn Unveileth”

The appealing imagery of natural beauty in the first stanza of this hymn text draws you in right away, and sets you up for the social and ethical implications of the second verse. Penina Moise, who wrote the text, was a Sephardic Jew born in Charleston, North Carolina, in 1797; she lived her entire life in Charleston, dying there in 1880 (Marion Ann Taylor, Heather E. Weir, Let Her Speak for Herself [Baylor University Press, 2006], 194). Her congregation, Beth Elohim in Charleston, published her hymnal in 1842, “the first hymnal written by an American Jew”; and her hymns continued to be sung long after her death, so that the Reform Jewish hymnal of the 1960s contained more hymns by Moise than by any other Jewish author (Colleen McDannell, ed., Religions of the United States in Practice, vol. 1 [Princeton Univ., 2001], 108 ff.). She is considered to be the first American Jewish woman to write poetry of note in the United States (Solomon Breitbard, “Penina Moise, Southern Jeiwsh Poetess,” ed. Samuel Proctor, Louis Schmier, Malcolm H. Stern, Jews of the South
[Mercer University Press, 1984], 32 ff.).

This setting of Moise’s text comes from the Union Hymnal of 1914. The music is by Alois Kaiser (1840-1908), who was born in Hungary and emigrated to the U.S. in 1866. He was an important early U.S. cantor, and a prolific composer.

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Pray When the Morn Unveileth (PDF, sized for order of service insert, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in.)

The tune is typical of late 19th century American hymnody, which may not appeal to all tastes; and the melody has perhaps too wide a range for a congregational hymn (an octave and a fourth, as bad as “The Star Spangled Banner”). But the music is well-crafted, providing a pleasant setting for the text, and I thought it worth including here: even if it is never sung by congregations, it would make a nice choir anthem.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.

“Behold with Joy”

One type of American sacred song that seems to have gradually disappeared in the past quarter century is the patriotic song. Some religious groups (I’m looking at you, Unitarian Universalists) have no patriotic songs at all in their current hymnals. This is a shame, especially for religious groups that claim to support democracy and democratic principles.

I recently came across a patriotic song written in 1776 by the Universalist and patriot Elhanan Winchester. It’s not the greatest poetry, but it’s straightforward and honest. I especially like the second verse, which I find particularly poignant in an era when elections are bought and sold by rich people and big companies:

Happy the land whose rulers are
Chose by the people’s voice alone
For such will take a special care
To save a country of their own.

I found these words set to a tune written in 1781 by composer and patriot William Billings. It’s a happy pairing of robust and singable tune, with honest and heartfelt poetry.

“Babylon Is Fallen”

“Babylon Is Fallen” is not your stereotypical Shaker hymn. The text, by Richard McNemar and first published in 1813 in the Shaker hymnal Millennial Praises, is all about the fall of Empire; the words to the refrain, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen!” come from that great anti-Imperial text, the book of Revelation (18:2): “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

I remember singing this song with a group of shape-note singers at the time of Occupy Oakland’s shutdown of the Port of Oakland, and it seemed eerily appropriate: “All her merchants cry with wonder / ‘What is this that’s come to pass?’ / Murmuring like the distant thunder, / Crying out, “Alas! Alas!” Obviously, the text predates consumer capitalism; yet insofar as consumer capitalism takes on the role of Empire, this text is worth singing in the early twenty-first century.

In any case, here’s the song:

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Babylon Is Fallen PDF

This setting of the text comes from The Sacred Harp, a shape note tunebook that has maintained a living tradition in the South since the 1850s. Traditional Southern singers don’t hold back on this song, as you can hear in this Youtube video. So this is not a polite church hymn to be sung in a breathy voice. It was likely written as a camp-meeting song (come to think of it, it would have sounded good at the Port of Oakland shutdown), and it should be sung full-throated and with vigor.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.

“We’ll Stand the Storm”

Here’s a wonderful sacred song from the 1873 edition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ songbook:

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We’ll Stand the Storm (PDF)

This song comes from the 1872 edition of Jubilee Songs: as sung by the Jubilee Singers, of Fisk University (New York: Bigelow & Main, 1872). It’s characteristic of the best arrangements of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with unison singing on the verses, followed by simple but effective four-part harmonies on the refrains. It’s possible to teach this kind of simple arrangement to an entire congregation, with not too much effort (though you have to be intentional about it).

The first verse is from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The second verse is mine, and it is modeled after verses for older sacred songs that were created by the mid-20th C. Civil Rights Movement.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.

“Down to the Valley To Pray”

The first known publication of “Down to the Valley To Pray” was in 1867, under the title “The Good Old Way,” in the book Slave Songs of the United States, ed. William F. Allen, Lucy M. White, and Charles P. Ware. In 1872, the Fisk Jubilee Singers included a different version of the melody in their songbook, under the title “The Good Old Way. In the mid-twentieth century, Leadbelly sang it for a Library of Congress recording

The song has also been taken up by white country and bluegrass singers. Flatt and Scruggs played it now and then, and Doc Watson did a lovely recording. In 2000, Alison Kraus popularized the song under the title “Down in the River To Pray,” which was part of the soundtrack to the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

For this version, I went back to the words and melody recorded in 1867. The melody begins and ends on the dominant, not the tonic, and both white and black musicians have sometimes emphasized that musically ambiguous ending; the final chord for this arrangement is D5 (dominant), not G (tonic).

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Down In the Valley To Pray (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

Performance notes: Because this song is so widely sung, you can safely sing it any way you want: blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, R & B, rock ‘n’ roll. Punk rock version, anyone? Or how about a hip hop version, with samples of Leadbelly’s classic rendition?

“Sioux Love Song”

One of the problems you run into when looking for copyright-free sacred songs is that most of the public domain songs out there are Anglo-American or African American, and Christian. That being the case, I’m willing to stretch the definition of “sacred song” quite a bit to include songs on even vaguely spiritual topics. Thus this lovely Sioux chant counts as a sacred song because of the English translation: “Brother-in-law, walk straight forward, I will try to follow you”: I’m willing to consider that a song about moral integrity, and staying in community.

Sioux Love Song (PDF), sized for order of service insert (5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in.)

Historical background: Gen. Samuel Armstrong Chapman founded Hampton Institute to educate newly freed African Americans; perhaps the best know Hampton graduate was Booker T. Washington. Armstrong also aimed to “civilize” Native Americans, that is, have them adopt Anglo-American culture. Thus when by Thomas P. Fenner, Bessie Cleaveland, and Frederic G. Rathbun put together Cabin and Plantation Songs, as Sung the the Hampton Students in 1901, the bulk of the music was African American spirituals, but there were also a handful of Native American songs.

Performance notes: About the three Sioux songs in the book, one the editors of Cabin and Plantation Songs wrote: “I have indicated as far as possible the actual tones of the above songs. It is impossible to put into notation the literal manner in which they are sung, as it depends entirely on the singer to change as his fancy dictates.” Thus the songs should be really sung in unison (i.e., with no accompaniment) to allow for this kind of improvisation — but the average congregation will probably find it easier to sing with some kind of accompaniment.

In a more formal worship service, it’s probably enough to sing the song through three times, maybe the second time through trying to sing the transliterated Sioux words. In less formal circle worship, you could sing it till you fall into a trance.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a classic spiritual song from the African American tradition. It may have been composed by Minerva and Wallace Willis. Here are two arrangements of this song.

The first arrangement is by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They published their arrangement in The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs (New York: Biglow & Main, 1872). Notice that their arrangement has the first note (“Swing…”) sung on the downbeat; this is different from a common contemporary interpretation of the song where the first note is a pickup measure. The original arrangement of the Fisk Jubilee singers had a fermata over the second note of the opening phrase (“…low…”), and again later where the word “low” is sung; I have omitted the fermata, both because it may confuse congregational singing, and to make this arrangement more consistent with the next arrangement.


Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Fisk Jubilee Singers (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

The next arrangement is derived from Harry T. Burleigh’s 1918 arrangement of this song for piano and low voice. Burleigh was arguably the first great African American composer of art music; he studied with Dvorak, and helped introduce Dvorak to American folk music. One of the verses and one of the choruses of Burleigh’s piano accompaniment can be easily and logically transcribed for SATB choir, as in the following arrangement.


Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Harry T. Burleigh (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

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“Go Down, Moses”

“Go Down, Moses” is a classic spiritual song from the African American tradition. The earliest known publication was in 1862, in an arrangement derived from a song sung by escaped slaves.

This arrangement comes from the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, perhaps the first African American musical ensemble to tour internationally. They published their arrangement in The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs (New York: Biglow & Main, 1872). Their version has 24 verses, telling how Moses led the Israelites to freedom (Exodus 12:29 through Exodus 14 in the Hebrew Bible); other verses mention other matters outside of this basic story. See Historical Background below for how this sacred song has been used as a song of freedom.

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Go Down, Moses (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

Historical background: Harriet Tubman used this as a code song when she was helping enslaved persons escape to the north. Sarah Bradford, in her biography of Tubman, (Auburn, N. Y.: W. J. Moses, 1869), pp. 26-27, wrote: “I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. ‘De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,’ she said, ’till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:
‘Moses go down in Egypt,
‘Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
‘Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
‘Shouldn’t hab to died at all,’
den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.'”

Performance notes: The Fisk Jubilee Singers were first recorded more than three decades after their founding, after many changes of personnel and music directors. In spite of the lapse of time, those early recordings are the best indication we have for the vocal style of the nineteenth century Jubilee Singers. These early recordings reveal a disciplined ensemble with light vibrato, careful enunciation, and precise intonation; a few early recordings are available online at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, U.C. Santa Barbara. The spare arrangement of “Go Down, Moses” seems to demand discipline, care, and precision in performance. However, the fluid melody is tolerant of the vagaries of congregational singing, and the simplicity of the arrangement means that the average congregation can learn how to sing this song in 4 part harmony.

For an introduction to this sacred song project, including information on copyright, click here.

“50 American Sacred Songs”

If your congregation is going to webcast your worship services, you obviously have to be careful of copyright issues. Music, especially, can cause problems: those who hold rights to music can be especially aggressive at enforcing their copyright.

This is further complicated by the fact that more than one person or entity may hold the copyright to a piece of music you wish to webcast, e.g., there may be one copyright on the music and another copyright on the arrangement, and still a third copyright on the lyrics.

Furthermore, you can’t trust the attributions in hymnals. For example, “How Can I Keep from Singing” is widely credited as an old Quaker hymn when it was composed by Robert Lowry in 1869; some of the arrangements published in hymnals are not by Lowry but are copyrighted; and the verse beginning “When tyrants tremble sick, with fear” is attributed to “Traditional” when it is copyright 1950 by Doris Plenn.

And it’s not just webcasts that cause copyright problems. By law, you cannot photocopy any copyrighted tunes, texts, or arrangements (no, not even for an insert in an order of service); nor can you project them onto a screen during a worship service.

So I decided to come up with fifty or so hymns, spiritual songs, chants, etc., that can be safely used without worrying about copyright issues. The tunes, texts, and arrangements either are in the public domain — either that, or they are my arrangements of text or arrangement to which I hold copyright but which I freely permit nonprofit organizations to perform, webcast, record, or project during services.

Update, October, 2016: The project was getting out of hand, so I decided to limit it to American sacred songs, generally with American texts, tunes, and arrangements (though in a few cases I’m including a little bit of English material).

I chose to retain the copyright for two reasons: first, so someone else can’t slap their copyright on my work and profit from it (and yes, Virginia, it has been done); and second, because Creative Commons did not offer exactly the kind of license I wanted. Note that I also retain copyright of the typesetting for all public domain material.

I had another powerful motivation for producing this collection: it should be quite useful for small congregations and house churches that cannot afford to purchase expensive hymnals. A small congregation with a tiny budget can photocopy as many copies as they want; they can project these sacred songs, record them or webcast them, and the congregation can do it for little or no money.

One caveat: I did not research international copyrights. Those who live in the European Union or elsewhere may find that material that is in the public domain in the United States is still protected by copyright in their jurisdiction.

Over the next year or so, I will be posting draft versions of sacred songs from this collection. You are welcome to use them in your congregation — and if you do, I’d love to hear from you if you liked it, or if you ran into any problems.

  Continue reading ““50 American Sacred Songs””