You don’t have to be religious to be affected by the power of gospel music. After all, it influenced soul and R&B music – along with rock’n’roll legends the likes of Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones – and even Bob Dylan tried his hand at writing bona fide gospel songs. What follows is a list of what we think are the best gospel songs of all time, perfect to take you to musical heaven…
Mahalia Jackson: ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’
Mahalia Jackson, a singer with one of the finest voices in this history of gospel music, did full justice to this joyous spiritual from 1927. Her moving version even reached the 1958 Billboard charts, a strong showing for a gospel single at the time when Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were dominating the rankings. You could fill a whole list of the best gospel songs just with Mahalia Jackson’s music, so a special mention also goes for her 1958 version of ‘Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho’, sung with such feeling and gusto.
Marian Anderson: ‘Move On Up A Little Higher’
‘Move On Up A Little Higher’ was another seminal hit for Mahalia Jackson. However, there is a striking version of the song, written by the Baptist minister William Herbert Brewster in the 40s, which was recorded by Marian Anderson, the celebrated contralto singer from Philadelphia.
Nat King Cole: ‘Down By The Riverside’
Many of the best gospel songs lent themselves to jazz interpretations. This famous spiritual – also known as ‘Ain’t Gonna Study War No More’ and ‘Gonna Lay Down My Burden’ – has its origins in the American Civil War (1861-65), though it was not actually published until 1918, when it appeared in Plantation Melodies: A Collection of Modern, Popular And Old-Time Negro-Songs Of The Southland, Chicago. The song, which is full of searing Biblical imagery, has been recorded by hundreds of leading musicians, including Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison. Nat King Cole sang it regularly at concerts.
Sam Cooke: ‘Touch The Hem Of His Garment’
This 1956 modern gospel gem easily makes the list of Best Gospel Songs Of All Time, and was penned speedily while soul singer Sam Cooke was on his way to a recording session with his group The Soul Stirrers. Their majestic harmonising on ‘Touch The Hem Of His Garment’ is a lovely example of male quartet singing from that period in American music when vocal groups were so popular.
Cat Stevens: ‘Morning Has Broken’
‘Morning Has Broken’ is a hymn written by the English children’s author Eleanor Farjeon in 1931. Cat Stevens’ almost reverential arrangement of the song – featuring the expressive piano playing of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman – was recorded in 1971 for his album Teaser And The Firecat. The single reached No.6 in the charts. Stevens later admitted: “I accidentally fell upon the song when I was going through a slightly dry period. I came across this hymnbook, found this one song, and thought, ‘This is good.’ I put the chords to it and then it started becoming associated with me.”
Simon & Garfunkel: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’
“God’s not into pop music,” joked Paul Simon recently, “he likes the gospel shows.” This modern classic was written by Simon and recorded in 1970 by the acclaimed duo. A year later, Aretha Franklin noted its potential to stand alongside some of the best gospel songs, and released a more overtly gospel version. In June 2017, an all-star charity version was released to raise money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London.
Bruce Springsteen: ‘O Mary Don’t You Weep’
This haunting gospel spiritual tells the biblical story of Mary Of Bethany and her pleas to Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. Springsteen said that the challenge of singing gospel music is that “you have to find your individual place in it”. ‘O Mary Don’t You Weep’, which was an inspiration for ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, is a song that has also been widely recorded, including versions by Pete Seeger and Burl Ives.
Louis Armstrong: ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’
Louis Armstrong brought emotion and depth to this powerful spiritual song, written during the period of slavery and published in 1867. The song has been popular with other jazz musicians, and among noted cover versions are those by Harry James and, more recently, Dr John, in his tribute album to Satchmo.
Alison Krauss And The Cox Family: ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’
Proving that the best gospel songs truly span genres, in 1994, country singer Alison Krauss teamed up with The Cox Family (who later appeared in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to record the album I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. Among the range of fine songs on the album is the gorgeous ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’, written by the gospel star George Beverly Shea. Shea appeared live in front of hundreds of millions of people in his career as a singer with preacher Billy Graham. Krauss and The Cox Family won a Grammy for Best Southern, Country Or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
Patty Griffin: ‘Up To The Mountain (MLK Song)’
Country singer Patty Griffin has written two fine modern gospel songs, ‘Heavenly Day’ and ‘Up To The Mountain (MLK Song)’, the latter of which was covered by Susan Boyle. Griffin went on to make a gospel album with The Staple Singers, called Downtown Church, which was recorded in the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
Nina Simone: ‘Sinnerman’
Some of what we think of as the best gospel songs actually began life outside of the church. ‘Sinnerman’ was based on a traditional African-American spiritual, which started life as a Scottish folk song. It was a tune Nina Simone would have heard at her local church, where she was the pianist from an early age. She would sometimes perform live versions of the song that lasted nearly 15 minutes.
Aretha Franklin: ‘There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood’
Aretha Franklin was only 14 when she recorded the 1956 album Songs Of Faith (later reissued in 1983 as Aretha Gospel) at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was the reverend. Among the remarkable performances is her version of this hymn by the English 18th-century hymn writer and poet William Cowper.
Tennessee Ernie Ford: ‘What A Friend We Have’
This gospel standard, which was written by the influential gospel composer Thomas Andrew Dorsey, has been covered by numerous leading musicians, including Little Richard and Elvis Presley. In 1960, country music singer Tennessee Ernie Ford had a hit with it for Capitol Records.
Ray Charles: ‘Amazing Grace’
This may be one of the most beloved hymns/spiritual songs of the past two centuries. The soaring words and melody, describing profound religious joy, strike a chord around the world, and ‘Amazing Grace’ is estimated to have appeared on more than 11,000 albums, including one featuring a version by Ray Charles with the London Symphony Orchestra. There are also terrific versions by Elvis Presley, Diana Ross and Willie Nelson.
Bob Dylan: ‘Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour’
Fanny Crosby, who was known as the Queen Of Gospel Song Writers, wrote this song in 1868. More than a century later, it was recorded by Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, who is thought to have learned his version from The Stanley Brothers. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dylan also released a so-called “Christian Trilogy” of albums, including Saved, which features his own songs, such as ‘Precious Angel’.
Ry Cooder: ‘Jesus On The Mainline’
Robert Plant and Randy Travis have both sung versions of this traditional spiritual, but the finest version is the tour-de-force live one by Ry Cooder And The Chicken Skin Band. A haunting example of roots music gospel.
The Kossoy Sisters: ‘I’ll Fly Away’
Written by noted gospel songwriter Albert E Brumley, ‘I’ll Fly Away’ was recorded by close-harmony specialists and identical twins The Kossoy Sisters in 1956. A sublime version by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss was later used by the Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Kanye West has even recorded a version.
Johnny Cash: ‘My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real)’
This gospel classic is from Johnny Cash’s 1962 album Hymns From The Heart. Arkansas-born Cash said that when he was 16, he came in from working in the fields where he used to sing gospel songs he had heard on the radio. He recalled: “I sang those old gospel songs for my mother, and she said, ‘Is that you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And she came over and put her arms around me and said, ‘God’s got his hands on you.’”
Edwin Hawkins Singers: ‘Oh, Happy Day’
‘Oh Happy Day’ is a 1967 gospel arrangement of an 18th-century hymn, and it was another song to reach the mainstream charts. The version by Edwin Hawkins Singers reached No.4 on the US singles charts, No.2 in Britain and Ireland, and was No.1 in France and Germany. The band won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance in 1970.
Big Bill Broonzy: ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’
A favourite of vocal groups since The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ version in 1909, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is sung regularly in churches and has also become a favourite at sporting venues around the globe. There is a remarkably affecting version by blues legend Big Bill Broonzy on his Last Sessions album, recorded in 1961, shortly before his death.
Sidney Bechet: ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’
This celebrated feel-good song (with lyrics that take much of their inspiration from the Book Of Revelations) became something of a jazz-gospel standard after Louis Armstrong’s impressive 1938 version. However, ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ also features in a brilliant instrumental version by the New Orleans legend Sidney Bechet.
Etta James: ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’
This traditional gospel song from 1873 is thought to have its roots in English folk music. It has proved popular with country music singers – Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle and Charlie Rich have covered it – but perhaps the pick is a vibrant version by Etta James.
Kirk Franklin: ‘Wanna Be Happy?
“It’s my goal to try to lead people to the manufacturer of their souls,” said Kirk Franklin, who won the 12th and 13th Grammy awards of his career in 2017 for his comeback album Losing My Religion. The track ‘Wanna Be Happy?’ includes a portion of ‘Tired Of Being Alone’ sung with Al Green, the veteran soul singer who also has a distinguished gospel pedigree, winning eight Best Soul Gospel Performance Grammy Awards.
Chance The Rapper: ‘Blessings’
The best gospel songs continue to enthral, as Chance The Rapper shows with his 2016 song ‘Blessings’. This intense and moving song features gospel singer Byron Cage and is built on the sound of a full gospel choir.
Thelonious Monk: ‘Abide With Me’
Doris Day cut a sweet version of this song for her 1962 album You’ll Never Walk Alone, but there is a very striking interpretation of the gospel classic by Thelonious Monk. His jazz instrumental take, for his 1957 album Monk’s Music, features jazz giants John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and drummer Art Blakey.
Looking for more? Discover how the best gospel songs influenced soul and rock’n’roll.
For more of the best gospel songs of all time, listen to the Forever Gospel playlist on Spotify.