This list of the best old gospel songs showcases some of the best gospel songs of all time. Many of these are traditional gospel classics and Christian hymns that have been performed by many artists over the years. The list also throws in a couple of more contemporary gospel tunes that have become modern classics. Let’s dive straight in.
1. Down By The Riverside – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
‘Down By The Riverside’ is an all-time gospel classic, and the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition of it is one of the most famous today. Listen to her outstanding recording of the song from her beautiful debut album Gospel Songs (1947).
2. Swing Low Sweet Chariot – Etta James
‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ is one of the best-known African-American spiritual songs ever. I love Etta James’ version of it, which comes from the album The Gospel Soul of Etta James (2013).
3. Oh Happy Day – Edwin Hawkins Singers
One of the most joyful and most popular gospel songs of all time, ‘Oh Happy Day’ has been performed by dozens of artists over the decades. The song is an arrangement of the 1755 hymn by Philip Doddridge, and was made a famous gospel song worldwide by the Edwin Hawkins Singers who recorded the track in 1967.
4. It Was Jesus – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s gospel era was marked by the release of several modern classic as well as traditional arrangements. Released in 1959, the beautiful ‘It Was Jesus’ comes from his gospel album Hymns.
5. Didn’t It Rain – Mahalia Jackson
The gospel classic ‘Didn’t It Rain’ draws on the story of Noah and the Great Flood, and Mahalia Jackson’s 1955 rendition is one of the best out there. The sheet music was first published in 1919 in an arrangement for voice and piano by Henry Thacker Burleigh.
6. Promised Land – Chuck Berry
Written to the tune of the American folk song ‘Wabash Cannonball,’ Chuck Berry released ‘Promised Land’ in 1964. One of the best known spiritual songs of the 20th century, it was also covered by Elvis Presley in 1974.
7. Hard Times Come Again No More – Mavis Staples
One of the biggest tunes in the history of gospel music, ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ was first published in 1854 by Stephen Foster. The rendition by rhythm and blues and gospel singer Mavis Staples is a popular version of the classic.
8. Gospel Ship – Joan Baez
‘Gospel Ship’ is one of the all-time great gospel tunes, first released by the Carter Family in 1936. The song has been covered many times, including by Mylon R. LeFevre. Joan Baez’s 1962 rendition is one of the best.
9. Just A Closer Walk With Thee – Patsy Cline
This traditional song has been performed and recorded dozens of times over the years, and is famously used in traditional New Orleans jazz funerals. The original writer of the song is unknown, but the song alludes to biblical passages from 2 Cor 5:7 and James 4:8. Patsy Cline’s 1960 recording of the song is a lovely rendition.
10. Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah – Mahalia Jackson
Surprisingly, ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ (also sang as ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’) has Welsh roots. In Welsh, the song ‘Cwm Rhondda’ was written by John Hughes in 1907. Mahalia Jackson’s famous 1969 rendition of is a classic.
11. Will My Mother Know Me There – Carter Family
The Carter Family’s rendition of ‘Will My Mother Know Me There’, recorded in 1933 remains the original classic recording. This influential Southern Gospel outfit have had a huge influence on bluegrass music and beyond, and this song is amongst their best-known.
12. Nearer To Thee – Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers
Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers’ version of ‘Nearer To Thee’ is everything you would expect from ‘the King of Soul.’ Check out the 1954 classic recording off the album Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers.
13. Old Rugged Cross – Al Green
‘Old Rugged Cross’ was written by George Bennard in 1912, with famous renditions of this classic coming from Johnny Cash and Alan Jackson. I personally enjoy Al Green’s version off his gospel album Precious Lord, released in 1982.
14. Amazing Grace – Aretha Franklin
‘Amazing Grace’ is probably the best-known gospel song of all time, and has been performed and recorded by dozens of artists. The original words were written by the English poet, Anglican clergyman, and abolitionist John Newton in 1772. Aretha Franklin’s recording from her 1972 live album Amazing Grace is a brilliant rendition.
15. Lord, Remember Me – Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers
This classic African-American spiritual song is another highlight from Sam Cooke’s stunning and soulful 1954 album Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers.
16. Wings Of A Dove – Ferlin Husky
‘Wings of a Dove’ is a hugely popular country gospel song written by Bob Ferguson in 1958. The song was made famous by Ferlin Husky’s 1960 release.
17. My Sweet Lord – Nina Simone
Originally written by George Harrison of The Beatles, ‘My Sweet Lord’ is not actually a traditional gospel song, although it sounds like one. Coming firmly from the world of secular music, the popular song was brilliantly covered by Nina Simone on her 1972 album Emergency Ward! It certainly has the feel of a gospel classic.
18. Down To The River To Pray – Alison Krauss
This beautiful song of unknown origin (also known by the chorus lone, ‘Come, Let Us All Go Down’) has been described as African-American spiritual and an Appalachian song. The lovely rendition by Alison Krauss has famously been used in the Cohen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou.
19. Go Down Moses – Louis Armstrong
Better known for jazz than gospel, Louis Armstrong’s 1958 recording of the classic ‘Go Do Moses’ is brilliant. One of the best-known African-American spirituals of all time, the earliest attribution of the song is to the Fisk Jubilee Singers who performed the song to Queen Victoria in 1873.
20. Gotta Serve Somebody – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is one the best-known American folk artists of all time, and his ‘gospel era’ saw him release three gospel albums in three years – Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ is one of his classics from the era.
21. The Baptism of Jesse Taylor – Jeannie C. Riley
‘The Baptism of Jesse Taylor’ is a modern gospel song, written by Dallas Frazier and Whitey Shafer. The original release by Jeannie C. Riley in 1973 is the most famous and best-loved.
22. How Great Thou Art – Al Green
Another stirring rendition from Al Green’s gospel album Precious Lord, ‘How Great Thou Art’ is a traditional Christian hymn based on a Swedish melody. One of the best-known hymns of all time – perhaps only beaten by ‘Amazing Grace’ – the words are based on Psalm 8. The song is still often used in worship music today.
23. Mary, Don’t You Weep – Aretha Franklin
One of the great African-American spirituals, ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’ refers to the biblical story of Mary of Bethany and her distraught plea to Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. A ‘slave song’ in its origins, it contains a coded message of hope. First recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915, Aretha Franklin produced a legendary recording of the song on her 1972 Amazing Grace album of gospel favourites and old hymns.
24. I Saw a Man – Johnny Cash
‘I Saw a Man’ is generally agreed to be one of the best songs on Cash’s classic Hymns album. The song describes a vision of Jesus, with the lyrics ‘I touched the hem of his garment’ referring to the women who touched Jesus’ cloak in order to try and get healing from him in Matt 9:20. It demonstrates Cash’s distinctive blending of gospel and country music.
25. Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel – Paul Robeson
It was said by Robert O’Meally that Paul Robeson’s voice carried ‘the might and authority of God’. Paul Robeson’s 1937 rendition of the traditional spiritual song ‘Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel’ shows the power of his voice, and is amongst the classic recordings of the song.
26. God is Love – Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Goin’ On features a couple of modern gospel classics. Marvin Gaye’s gospel originals are certainly not as old as some of the songs on this list, but they deserve a mention. ‘God is Love’ is an uplifting classic showing Marvin Gaye at his best.
27. What a Friend We Have in Jesus – Al Green
The traditional Christian hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ was originally written as a poem by Joseph M. Scriven in 1855. The poem was intended to comfort his mother who was living across the Atlantic from him in Ireland. It has since become one of the best-known songs in Christian music. Al Green’s rendition from his Precious Lord album is one of the best out there.
28. Every Time I Feel The Spirit – Mahalia Jackson
The traditional African-American spiritual ‘Everytime I Feel The Spirit’ has been performed by many artists. However, it is only Mahalia Jackson who received a Grammy for her rendition of it. The award for her 1961 recording of the song is just one of numerous Grammy-award-winning songs of hers, also including ‘Great Song of Love and Faith’ (1962) and ‘How I Got Over’ (1976).
29. Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child – Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson’s classic 1946 album Spirituals includes a selection of the best-loved traditional African-American spirituals, delivered in Robeson’s unmistakable baritone voice. ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is another old gospel song that is first attributed to the Fisk Jubilee Singers
30. When You Gonna Wake Up – Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs
Another modern gospel classic from Bob Dylan, ‘When You Gonna Wake Up’ comes from his gospel album Slow Train Coming (1979). As a tribute to Bob Dylan’s gospel era, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Songs of Bob Dylan, an album of cover versions was released in 2003, with Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs providing an excellent version of the song.
31. Michael, Row The Boat Ashore – The Highwaymen
This old gospel song of unknown origin was first published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States by Allen, Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. The lyrics likely refer to the River Jordan and allude to baptism as a metaphor for deliverance and freedom. The song has famously been sung by many, including Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The best-known recording is The Highwaymen’s 1960 recording, which reached number one in the US charts.
32. Wholy Holy – Marvin Gaye
Another modern gospel song from Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Goin’ On album, ‘Wholy Holy’ is a slow and atmospheric gospel masterpiece. The track was later covered by Aretha Franklin on brilliant Amazing Grace album. Both versions are beautiful and essential contemporary gospel tunes.
33. Peace In The Valley – Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers
‘Peace in The Valley’ was written in 1939 by Thomas A. Dorsey for Mahalia Jackson, however, it went on to be covered by many artists, becoming a gospel classic. Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash have all recorded the song. However, Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrer’s rendition requires special mention.
If you want to dig further into the best old gospel songs, check out these five classic gospel albums:
- Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace
- Al Green, Precious Lord
- Etta James, Gospel
- Paul Robeson, Spirituals
- Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke with The Soul Stirrers