Hoping for Help with Hymns

edited April 2012 in Spiritual
As it's Sunday, I wonder if anyone can help me out with some suggestions along the following lines. I periodically get a hankering to find some recordings of hymns/worship songs that I can live with as listening material outside church. This hankering has to live alongside my tendency to dislike most current Christian music. The kinds of thing that I am not looking for include:

- "inspirational" recordings in which the songs are so larded with dripping sentimentality that I drown before I get to the theological content
- versions in which the singer is so desperate to touch me with the staggering depth of his or her sincerity that I end up just mentally watching him or her emote.
- CCM or me-focused worship lite
- instrumental recordings (actually maybe I wouldn't mind one or two of those, but my interest right now is in the texts, not just a musical cue for reminiscence)
- country versions (one day I'll learn to love something in that genre, but probably not this week; although I'm willing to listen if you have something you think will really impress me)
- versions that turn hymns into exercises in aesthetic refinement; this rules out a lot of white high-church choir recordings. I'm not after anything Rutter-esque. Not that I don't have a place for spiritual classical music, but I am after something with more guts here. Respectful but perhaps not too sacred.
- black gospel I like, but I already have inroads into that, it's not really quite the gap I'm feeling.

There may be a place for some or all of the above. I do not necessarily intend a blanket rejection, just trying to describe what I'm hankering for and not finding. In one of my first MiG pieces I cited Bruce Cockburn's "realization that numbingly familiar seasonal standards “are still songs, written by songwriters, with lyrics that often make sense and are beautiful.” He refers to his own creative process of retrieval in terms of discovering that “a little nudge in one direction or another would help to revive their ‘songness’.”" That's part of what I'm after, something that foregrounds the lyrical integrity of the hymn while also having musical integrity and some honest robustness rather than erring in the direction of vaguely comforting schmaltz. I'm not sure exactly what I am looking for, or even exactly what genre it would fall in (do I want bluesy verions? jazzy versions? choirs? I don't know). I just know I'm not hearing it.

Any suggestions?


  • Bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson and Rev Gary Davis?
  • Maybe. I have one or two Johnson tracks. Is there a particularly good collection to try?
  • I'll tell you in a few hours: Im at Costco ...
  • edited April 2012
    Well . . . when an old fart like me see the word hymn, this lovely lovely mega hit from 1962 pops up:

    ETA, My goodness ! - Thats 50 years ago.
  • edited April 2012

    This is the entire recorded output of Blind Willie Johnson, and it's transcendent music. Dark Was the Night, Cold Is the Ground Most are sung/with lyrics, though not this one.

    I'll think about this some more. There are certainly plenty of good gospel-jazz projects out there. This is a new one, for example, which I am still getting to know.


    A couple years old...southern Gospel (with the legendary Allen Toussaint on piano and prob arrangements):


    There's also a great new duet album with Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, but that's instrumental.
  • kezkez
    edited April 2012
    @GP - well you've hit on a favorite subject of mine. I have long since planned on making a double mixtape for my personal enjoyment - one of spiritual songs of a more reverent and sublime nature called Spiritual Songs (The Sacred), and the other called Spiritual Songs (The Profane). The profane list of songs are contemporary ordinary songs that speak of spiritual things without being 'worship-py' stuff, and have incredibly thought-provoking lyrics and music that moves. The number of songs for The Sacred are about 6 or 7 - the number for The Profane is looooong - there's so much out there. I will write again with some recommendations you might try.

    I wanted to mention, though, that I just submitted an MiG piece on Kate Campbell's latest album. One of the songs is an old traditional African American spiritual that I found to be incredibly moving and beautiful. You may like that one. Even if you don't have time to review the whole piece right now, you might want to go to the MiG site and listen to that song.

    Also, my next MiG for Part 2 of my '70s Show series will be on Mark Heard. He was one talented artist - you might be interested to know that Bruce Cockburn considered him to be America's best songwriter. Heard died of a heart attack at age 40. Cockburn never met Heard, but was very affected by his death, and wrote a song about Heard called "Closer to the Light" that was included on one of his albums. I highly recommend Mark Heard's album, Second Hand.

    EDIT // I forgot to mention that Mark Heard began his recording career with a Christian music label. Not your typical Christian music stuff, though, by any means.

    EDIT // Maybe you would like Eric Bibb's Get Onboard ?
  • Doofy linked to the one I've had for years. It's a great collection, but $11.10 at emu for 90 minutes seems a little high.
  • edited April 2012
    GP: I wouldn't normally recommend Bluegrass to you, but To Be His Child by the Nashville Bluegrass Band is the best BG-Gospel album (of which there are many).
  • This thread reminds me of the Jazziest church in the world: the church of the Risen Trane!
  • Johnny Cash's "My Mother's Hymn Book" comes to mind; I know you said no country, but it meets so much of your other criteria...

    I've been really enjoying Mahalia Jackson lately, but you may already have that covered.

    Something else to check out is The Reverend Charlie Jackson. It's a whole different kind of black gospel. Try "Wrapped Up and Tangled Up in Jesus" - it will get hooks in you.
  • edited April 2012
    @Kez, I was going to mention Kate Campbell, really her whole catalog is peppered with spiritual music. I particularly like "The Last Song," on Wandering Stranger. There are several well-done classic hymns on that one as well.

    I second Mark Heard, and suggest Buddy and Julie Miller, Buddy's last album was particularly good. They do the soundtrack for kids cartoon, "Little Dogs on the Prairie," a Christian kids cartoon which is witty and not too over the top. Julie Miller wrote a song called Broken Things, one of my favorites, although Lucy Kaplansky does a better job.

    Iris Dement did an album of hymns, although her style is quite quirky.

    I am almost always willing to put in a plug for Bill Mallonee. I would not call his music "Christian," just good songwriting with a spiritual edge. He was the frontman for Vigilantes of Love, another good band to rec in this category.

    /edit Gotta Serve Somebody, the gospel songs of Bob Dylan covered by some of the best gospel singers.
  • @Plong42 - yes, I particularly love Kate Campbell's "The Last Song", too. And her entire Wandering Strange album. Julie Miller, Bill Mallonee, Mark Heard, and Sam Phillips were all Christian music artists before breaking into mainstream and they're all very, very good.

    I was also going to suggest Sandra McCracken - she has an album of hymns out. Also Innocence Mission. And, GP - although I don't think you're particularly into celtic music, there's a group called Eden's Bridge that has a very gorgeous and soul-soothing album called Celtic Worship.

    I also like Jonathan Rundman's double CD opus of 52 tracks covering each week of the Lutheran advent calendar. Very spiritual without sounding 'churchy' at all.
  • Here's something to try--Free at BC:

    Very solid religious songs performed in Jug Band-Blues style.
  • edited April 2012
    GP - I'm not sure if this would fit into your categories to avoid but anything from Taize might fit the bill - a favourite of mine is Laudate omnes gentes (Amazon UK link)
  • Also try Ollabelle - their self-titled debut album, or Riverside Battle Songs. Levon Helm's daughter is one of the band members.
  • Many thanks for all the suggestions so far. A few I have already, a few are familiar names, others are new to me. I will listen to them all as I get time!

    Do keep them coming, especially if there are any that have done musically interesting versions of classic hymns.
  • Also check out Never Grow Old by Anne Hills & Cindy Mangsen. link The traditional song Lone Pilgrim is especially gorgeous.
  • Another interesting project...an album of spirituals by classical baritone Sykes and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. I think Sykes has also done several other recordings of sacred music too.

  • One of my favorites in this general category has to be Sacred Steel Guitar - very hot and tasty versions of traditional hymns done somewhat untraditionally. Hard to keep the feet still to this though.
  • This topic reminds me that I always meant too, but never quite got around to downloading the rest of Polynesian Polyphonies - hymne seems like something that might appeal to you.
  • Jubilant Sykes sang at my daughter's school's choir concert last year!
  • Um, I think I clicked on the wrong sacred steel!
  • Pfft. They don't even have any umlauts.
  • edited April 2012
    @GP - depends on who you're aiming your devotions at I guess. I'd stick to those Arhoolie Records releases at eMu myself. Didn't realize they had it there.
  • Spotify's response: "Did you mean sacred steel gustav?"
  • You could give a listen to Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem's sneak preview of their forthcoming album, "Some Bright Morning" on Bandcamp.

  • edited April 2012
    Thanks, will do. We have the Ollabelle on CD, by the way. @greg, Taize is a good idea, I'll check that out.
  • Another artist came to my mind this morning - Adrian Snell. Not all of his recordings will fit the bill, but some, especially Alpha and Omega, and the Passion will. I couldn't find Alpha and Omega on either emusic or Amazon. I've only got it on a cassette. Years ago, probably late 80s, he performed it in a number of cathedrals with local choirs - I was in the one in Peterborough. A year or so later he invited each choir to the Royal Albert Hall, where he performed his new work, Kiss the Tears (great but again I think I only have it on cassette) and then those choirs there jointly sang with him on Alpha and Omega. I can therefore claim that I have performed at the RHA!!
  • Ah, that brings back memories. I used to have Alpha and Omega on vinyl - it's conceivable that I still do, somewhere in the basement. I remember a version of one of the psalms that he did on another album that I once owned on cassette that was very meaningful to me in 1986...should try to track that down. Performed at the RHA, huh... you're in good company there!
  • I'll have to search mine out, I've got several recordings of his from the late 80s and early 90s. I know I have at least one LP, A and O on cassette and maybe a CD or two somewhere. I'd forgotten about him until thinking about your request this morning. There was a time around 1990 when he was even getting played on national radio.
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