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Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ben Harper, J. Moss and more: our favourite gospel songs
By
Kiah Welsh

Published

March 25, 2016

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Have you ever listened to a song and felt compelled to share it? Well, that's the type of experience you get when you hear gospel music. Below we share gospel tunes that have moved us, and others that have made for a great musical experience.

Let us know in the comments or via @CBCMusic what your favourite gospel tunes are.


'Down to the River to Pray,' performed by Alison Krauss

Although the exact origin of the song is unknown (research suggests that it may have been composed by an African-American slave), this gospel song hit the mainstream after being placed in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, performed by Alison Krauss. I was lucky enough to sing this song with the Bach Children's Chorus years ago, and it is still one of my favourite pieces I ever had the chance to perform.

— Matt Fisher (@MattRFisher)


'Give me Jesus,’ arranged by Larry Fleming

The message of the spiritual "Give me Jesus" is at once simple and profound. "When I am alone, give me Jesus," says the opening verse, a reminder that, no matter what the world throws at us, there's a light inside that never goes out. "When I come to die," the second verse continues, "give me Jesus. You may have all the rest." There are lots of solo versions of this gospel song, but Larry Fleming's choral arrangement is probably the most poignant, and this live performance by Augustana Choir is incredible.

— Robert Rowat (@rkhr)


'The Power of the Gospel,' Ben Harper

Ben Harper's never hidden the fact that he is a God-fearing man. Even when he was making a name for himself singing about "burning one down," the stoner anthem of the '90s, he was simultaneously releasing poignant, soul-shattering spirituals like this. I've never been religious, but if this song was performed at churches, it would be enough to make me go to service. Easily one of my all-time favourites from him.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)


'Praise on the Inside,' J. Moss

Every time I listen to J.Moss's "Praise on the Inside," I feel at ease. It's one out of a couple songs that puts a smile on my face, even when I'm having a bad day. The lyrics, "Let it bring forth the sound/ from your heart, filled with gladness/ all ye lands make a joyful noise/ let the songs of David live, forever/ praise is the way I say thanks," is a reminder that in the good and bad times I'm not ever alone — even when it feels like the odds are against me. Have a listen to the track below, and tell me if you feel the same.

— Kiah Welsh (@simplykiah)


'Up Above My Head,' Sister Rosetta Tharpe

I love gospel mixed with grit and joy and guitar, particularly when it's Sister Rosetta Tharpe pausing to shred an amazing solo in the middle of a song. Tharpe was an inspiration who lived and breathed music not just as art or expression but as identity, as a place to assert herself as a leader. Her arrangement amps up the song's gloriously celebratory refrain — "Up above my head there's music in the air/ and I really do believe joy's somewhere" — and she skilfully keeps the infectious cheer teetering on the edge of total abandon, even as the momentum picks up speed like a bullet train.

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)


'Steal Away,' Charlie Haden and Hank Jones

My favourite gospel album is by the great jazz pianist Hank Jones. Jones was one of seven children to a baptist deacon who had moved his family north to Detroit from Vicksburg, Miss., during the roaring 1920s. Two of Jones's younger brothers became stars in the jazz world — trumpeter and composer Thad Jones, and hard-bop drummer Elvin Jones — but it was Hank who stayed closest to the family's gospel roots.

In 1995, when Hank was 77, he recorded the album Steal Away, paying tribute to that music: a set of simple, clear and frankly beautiful renditions of the hymn tunes he'd first heard in his father's church and played his entire life. The only other musician present is the bassist Charlie Haden, and the results are magical: not flashy, not loud, not fast, not overly produced; just the tunes played with feeling by a man who knew them as well as he knew anything. The album won a Grammy, and prompted a sequel, and Hank lived on to enjoy that success for another 14 years, until he died at the tremendous age of 91 and was finally allowed to truly Steal Away.

— Tom Allen (@CBCR2Shift)


'The Heavenly Parade,' Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver

When you hear Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, what you're hearing is one of the tightest and most well-blended vocal quartets in country music history. And the reason they're so good? It's all in the way they rehearse. Lawson is the leader of the group and he's responsible for their rehearsal process: they meet in his living room, four of them. As they start singing a song, individually they leave the room and each person walks to a different part of the house, still singing the entire time. As the song begins to end, they all walk back into the living room and when they arrive they need to be still singing in the same key and at the same time. It's exceptionally hard to do and in order for it to work they need to practise dozens of times — but that process has led to that rich, perfectly blended vocal harmony. Check this out.

— Tom Power (@tompowercbc)