Top 10 Creative Hymn Arrangements

When Southern Gospel artists record table projects, hymns are a natural choice. The renditions are frequently straight out of the hymnal, just switching the soprano part down an octave for the lead singer. While there’s nothing wrong with that, a hymn arrangement and a creative arrangement don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Here are a few Southern Gospel hymn arrangements that use the hymn as a starting place for creativity:

  1. I Bowed On My Knees (Michael English). English’s iconic rendition of the hymn, recorded with every group he has been part of since the Goodmans in the early 1980s, is one of the most instantly recognizable tracks in Southern Gospel—oft copied since, but never surpassed.
  2. Love Lifted Me (Kingsmen, Live . . . Naturally, 1981). The Kingsmen recorded this arrangement on several projects, first on 1973’s Big and Live. But this one is probably the best. Hamill on the verses, audience singing on the straight-ahead chorus, the band kicking into double-time, and Little Ernie Phillips going through the rafters . . . it just doesn’t get better than this. Until the encore, that is.
  3. Love Lifted Me (Florida Boys, The Many Moods of the Florida Boys, 1970). Speaking of arrangements of “Love Lifted Me,” there is no question that the Florida Boys’ 1970 rendition deserves a mention on this list. Though tenor Tommy Atwood’s distinctive delivery has been compared by certain skeptical fans who shall go unnamed hearing the song for the first time to a sick cat and a police siren, one thing all can agree on: This arrangement is unique. And I, for one, love it.
  4. O Holy Night (Greater Vision, A Greater Vision Christmas, 1999). Gerald Wolfe and Lari Goss’s arrangement was so good that, for all intents and purposes, Wolfe has owned the song since, for our genre at least—and several top-tier singers who have done it since (Mark Trammell, TaRanda Greene) have used this track.
  5. Onward Christian Soldiers (Florida Boy, Up in the Sky, 1964). Especially at the time, but even still today, this rendition stands out as unique. The snare drum and bass solo aren’t exactly what one might expect, but they fit the lyric and melody perfectly.
  6. Wonderful Grace of Jesus (Cathedral Quartet, Voices in Praise Acapella, 1983). This arrangement became iconic over the years; the Cathedrals continued staging it through their final year on the road.
  7. Jesus Saves (Liberty Quartet, Timeless Treasured Hymns 2, 2007). How many hymn arrangements have you heard where the song shifts time signatures, from 3/4 to 4/4? Yet Liberty pulls it off so flawlessly here that, as I said here, “…after hearing Liberty Quartet sail effortlessly through more chord, time signature, and tempo changes than a typical mainstream group on a major label release, I found myself hoping that their projects of new songs could measure up.”
  8. O Worship the King (Janet Paschal, Sounds Like Sunday, 2007). Though there is only so much one can do with a vocal arrangement for a soloist, the track’s smooth transition from major to minor and back to major—in a song so majestic that most people wouldn’t even contemplate a minor key—earns this song its place on the list.
  9. Battle Hymn (Liberty Quartet, Timeless Treasured Hymns 2, 2007). Though there have been a number of decent renditions, it took a group of Yankees based in Idaho to pull off the definitive version of this song. The martial arrangement and creative harmonies earn this song its place in the top ten.
  10. O Happy Day (Florida Boys, Brotherhood, date unknown but probably late ’50s or early ’60s). This song is most frequently rendered as a repetitive to the point of pushing boring spiritual. Who would have thought it could become a convention song with energetic counterpoint?

Honorable Mention:

  • I Sing the Mighty Power of God / Canon in D (The Browns, Heritage Hymn Collection 1, 2009). The only reason this creative instrumental piece didn’t make the top ten is that there were too many good choices!
  • I’d Rather Have Jesus (Crabb Family, Blur the Lines, 2006). Jason Crabb added another signature song to his repertoire with this rendition. The studio version doesn’t quite capture the power of the live rendition, though.
  • Wonderful Grace of Jesus (The Browns, Heritage Hymn Collection Vol. 1, 2009). Practically every group that has cut this song since the Cathedrals trademarked their arrangement has more or less copied the Cathedrals’ rendition. But when the Browns cut it, they had a problem to encounter: They didn’t have a bass singer to hold down the bass part. They compensated by making the harmonies even a little more complex, and the delightful result would easily place this in a top 20 list.
  • Near To the Heart of God (Ball Brothers, Simplified, 2008). The Ball Brothers’ vocal arrangements are so creative that it would be hard to narrow the list down to their most creative hymn arrangement. Though not a showstopper, this track is quite creative in a subdued, understated sort of way.
  • My Savior’s Love / And Can It Be Medley (Liberty Quartet, Timeless Treasured Hymns 2, 2007). Yes, no less than three tracks from this project make a top 20 list.
  • At the Cross (Gaither Vocal Band, Lovin’ God Lovin’ Each Other, 1997). This track starts out so slow that you might be inclined to write it off as the Vocal Band’s most boring song selection ever. Then Guy Penrod takes a solo on the verse and turns it into a power ballad. The slide from the third interval down to the root at the end of the verse is particularly unforgettable.

Surely I missed a few. Other honorable mentions—or songs you thought should have been in the top ten?

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59 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Legacy Five, Just Stand.

    • That’s a great arrangement, with a great track. But what would you say about the arrangement makes it outside-the-box, unique?

      • Oh my bad, I forgot it was supposed to be most creative. I was thinking just best arrangments.

      • No doubt it’s among the best, though!

      • I’ve never been a good describer… but I do think it would qualify as a creative arrangement! Let me ask this… what is so different about the Cathedrals rendition of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” or how do you describe the difference? Maybe that will give me an idea of what I’m grasping for here 😉

      • The unison section leading into the transposition, and then the gradual splitting into parts after the transition, are key unique points.

      • Also the ending “Praise the name of Jesus, wonderful name of Jesus. Magnify His Holy name!

      • Ah, I see. Well… I would think that the arrangement of the first verse(the blending of the lead, baritone and bass into unison at the middle of the verse then back out with a Fowler taking the melody) would qualify as being creatively arranged… also how they arranged the tag. They changed it from a hymn-style song to a ballad. But, they didn’t “change” song like, say, “Love Lifted Me” was changed by the Kingsmen. It still has the same tune… but I think the feel was changed significantly. That may just be me… (it usually is!) lol. 😉

  2. While they may not be popular enough for a top 10 list, I enjoy listening to LordSong’s rendition of “Lord of the Dance” from their “Acapella” album (and “Mark Lowry Goes To Hollywood”). To be completely honest, I hadn’t heard the “original version” of the song first. 🙂

    I’m always in awe of acapella singing, so the Isaacs’ “I Will Praise Him,” on their newest album, “Naturally,” does get repeated a lot.

    David Phelps’ rendition of “The Love of God”on his live album, “No More Night” is also really easy on the ears. I’ve heard him sing it live (acoustically, no tracks) as a trio with his backup singer (and sister) Sherri, and his keyboard player and everything man, Jack Daniels, and their harmonies are quite beautiful. I think a dobro is used in the arrangement? Because they slow the arrangement down, it’s very easy for me to listen to all the words, which I like. 🙂

    • Great submissions.

    • Not so sure about “Lord of the Dance”. It is excellently rendered by LordSong admittedly,
      BUT, the lyric is theologically suspect and in parts quite irreverent. It is hardly the best composition in bringing out the sorrows of the cross or the victory of Calvary!

      • I just heard that song a while back and thought about the same thing. (I heard someone else playing it; I don’t think it was necessarily a religious group.)

        The weird thing is that, artistically speaking, it is just fantastic. It stirs you emotionally in ways you can’t explain, even though your brain isn’t really getting anything out of the lyric.

      • I’ve never heard this song, so I looked up the lyrics. Very strange. The Bible never once mentions Jesus dancing. I know it must be some kind of metaphor, but to me it makes no sense. It looks to me like another in a long line of characterizations of Jesus as an effeminate hippie, a characterization that is, at best, disrepectful and wrong, and, at worst, blasphemous.

      • Not so strange at all, as it is not christian but Celtic. it is classified as an ‘Irish Drinking Song’ and was popularised by a folk group called the Dubliners.

        The song typifies a growing trend in SGM of ‘importing’ dubious secular lyrics and spiritualizing them. They may sould like ‘gospel music’ but their source is anything but. “You Raise Me Up” is another example, imported from the same kind of source.
        We can be forgiven for ‘spiritual poetic license’ – as some of the lyric in “I want to see Jesus”, for example, but good music does not aways good gospel make! We should beware of these trends in ‘cross-over’ music, from folk, country and blue-grass etc which are not scriptural in ethic or lyric.

  3. ‘Champion of Love’, Gerald Wolfe with the Cathedrals, originally though Greater Vision version or Scott Fowler’s lead on Cathedral’s Farewell Concert still qualifies. i would have it at number 2 after ‘I bowed on my Knees’, which is definitely iconic and while Michael’s backsliding and recovery hasn’t helped his voice it surely has helped the sincerity and depth of the song!

    Best rendition of, since you didn’t specify an album Daniel? Maybe the GVB ‘Reunion’ Studio DVD?
    Which also includes possibly the best rendition of ‘He Touched Me’ (a song which should be in there somewhere?) with Buddy Mullins on lead. The point of note being the ‘quartet’ was unrehearsed and had never sung together before in that lineup!

    • Champion of Love is iconic, but is it a hymn? 😉

      Good point on that I didn’t specify a rendition of I Bowed on My Knees. Not sure I have a favorite.

  4. Glad you questioned if “Champion” was a hymn. Many of the listed top ten songs are not what are traditionally known as hymns. Bowed On My Knees, Love Lifed Me, I’d Rather Have Jesus, Oh Happy Day – these are sacred songs that wound up in modern day hymnals.

    • Love Lifted Me has been considered as a hymn in all the churches I’ve attended, but perhaps that’s a Northern thing.

      Basically, I’d classify a song as a hymn if either (a) it comes from the era when that was the only real major Christian style (1600s-late 1800s) or (b) it’s more recent, but is ubiquitous enough to be in hymnals from a wide variety of denominations / publishers.

      So I’d count “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” “Because He Lives,” and “He Touched Me” as hymns, even if their authors/composers are still alive.

      • A hymn is anything in the ol’ red-back, “Church Hymnal”. 🙂

        I have to confess, I feel uncomfortable at my parent’s church. The church has the “Church Hymnal” but it is green, not red. That is just wrong. LOL

      • I’ve seen green copies as well, and it is strange.

      • Meanwhile, the one Greater Vision sells is really maroon!

      • I’ve seen white ones also. I agree, if it’s not red it is too strange!

    • Actually, the hymnals are in blue, red, green, and white. They are printed by Tennessee Music Company, which is located in Cleveland, TN.

  5. ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus – Gold City from Pillars of Faith.

  6. I gotta lot of red hymnbooks and “I Bowed on my Knees” ain’t in any of them! If it stays at No.1 on this vox pop, then “Champion of Love” deserves No.2 slot!

    i think if a song is in at least one traditional Hymnal it qualifies as a hymn – or in this context it has become accepted as mainstream SGM. Quite a few of WG&G Gaither creations are by now accepted as ‘hymns’ world wide, even if they ain’t in many red hymnbooks.

    There is space for a fresh arrangement of “It is Finished” or “Let Freedom Ring” both Gaither songs worthy of inclusion on the list. Maybe it needs somebody other than Bill to ‘narrate’ the first line!

    • David – even though it isn’t in that particular hymnal, I have several other hymnals that contain the song.

    • I have to agree…I question whether “I Bowed On My Knees” is a hymn as well.

  7. In no particular order:

    Worthy The Lamb – GVB, Reunited (pg 285, Hymns For The Family of God, pub 1976)

    All People That On Earth Do Dwell – The Martins (been doing this for years, most recently on the 2007 GGS Rock Of Ages)

    Tell Me The Story of Jesus/I Love to Tell the Story – Charlotte Ritchie & Ivan Parker, GGS Amazing Grace (most recent version)

    Sitting at the Feet of Jesus – GVB & EHSSQ, Together

    Great is Thy Faithfulness/How Big is God/How Great Thou Art – Anthony Burger, GGS London HC (among others)

    And, although he’s not strictly SG, (but we are talking about creativity here, yes?), Dino’s All Creation Sings, Peace in the Midst of the Storm, and Majestic Peace albums contain mostly hymns, some married with classical movements. The best of these, IMO, is the New World Symphony 2nd Movement (Going Home)/Only Trust Him. Absolutely breathtaking.

    BTW, I grew up singing Love Lifted Me in church (in the hymnal), which means it’s got to be pretty old! 🙂

  8. Just a Little Talk With Jesus by the Oak Ridge Boys

    Where the Soul Never Dies the Oak Ridge Boys and I’m Winging My Way Back Home by the Oak Ridge Boys (both on their Down Home, Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’, Southern Style Gospel Quartet Music lp.

    Jesus Is Coming Soon The Oak Ridge Boys live versions on their Thanks and Performance lp’s.

    I Sing The Mighty Power of God by Greater Vision

  9. I forgot to put a link to the Oaks “Talk” It was on their live (Rockland Road) lp, but here is the same arrangement.

  10. In no particular order:

    Worthy The Lamb – GVB, Reunited (page 285, Hymns for the Family of God, pub 1976) (And yes, I know this was first released on Give It Away, but adding Michael’s key change & David’s accents make this one superior.)

    All People That on Earth Do Dwell – The Martins (most recently on GGS Rock of Ages)

    Tell Me the Story of Jesus/I Love to Tell the Story – Charlotte Ritchie and Ivan Parker, GGS Rock of Ages (I think – don’t have them in front of me).

    Sitting at the Feet of Jesus – GVB and EHSSQ, Together

    Great is Thy Faithfulness/How Big is God/How Great Thou Art – Anthony Burger

    And, although he’s not strictly SG, (but we are talking about creativity, yes?), Dino’s Peace Series cds are mostly hymns, with more than one married to a classical piece. My favorite of those is New World Symphony 2nd Movement (Going Home)/Only Trust Him (from All Creation Sings). Absolutely gorgeous.

    I grew up singing Love Lifted Me out of the (red) hymnal – so it must be pretty old! 🙂

    I also didn’t realize that I Bowed On My Knees is considered a hymn.

    I agree with JayTee about The Love of God by David Phelps. Then again, David does everything beautifully!

  11. “I Then Shall Live” Gaithers… This song is in alot of newer hymnals…

    • I have also seen “Be Still My Soul” in hymnals, which a different text set to the tune Finlandia, the same as I Then Shall Live.

      • I’m am going to say something here, and it is not meant to ruffle any feathers or offend anyone, but I’m a bit wary of calling every Gaither song found in hymnals hymns. I love the Gaithers and Gaither Homecoming and all of the music related to that, as so many of you do. Some of my favorite songs are Gaither-penned. But I just encourage you to stop and look at the publisher of the hymnals when you see a Gaither song that isn’t what most would consider a hymn before automatically classifying it as a hymn.

        When I think of songs by the Gaithers that I consider hymns, I think of Because He Lives, He Touched Me, There is Something About That Name, etc.

        To me, just because a song appears in a hymnal, that doesn’t necessarily make it a hymn.

        To cite an example, I grew up in a church in Illinois that used a hymnal called Worship His Majesty. I still have my copy from singing in the church choir. As I thumb through it, out of the roughly 700 songs contained in this hymnal, 108 of them are penned by Gloria and/or Bill Gaither. Among these 108 songs are favorites of Gaither fans such as Fully Alive, Get All Excited, Gentle Shepherd, He Started the Whole World Singing, I Am Loved, I Believe in a Hill Called Mt. Calvary, Let’s Just Praise the Lord, Next Time We Meet, Peace Be Still, Sinner Saved By Grace, The Family of God, The King is Coming, The Longer I Serve Him, This Is the Time I Must Sing, We Have This Moment Today, and When God Seems So Near.

        While I completely agree that these are wonderful songs that have played a role in shaping SGM, I would not consider the better part of those to be hymns, despite the fact that they all appear in a hymnal.

        Worship His Majesty was produced in 1987 by the Gaither Music Company.

      • Meagan,

        I think our feathers DO need ruffled a little! ‘Praise and Worship’ and more especially CCM is sinking into a level of mediocrity and quasi-theology which can never be used to edify much less educate an up and coming generation of young believers. the SGM genre seems to have been preserved from much of this degeneration, and we perhaps need to acknowledge Bill and Gloria et al as a mainstay of the preservation, if not regeneration of quality southern gospel music, a genre which is now obtaining a new following weel outside the southern states of the US.

        Notwithstanding their personal contribution to SGM in the last 50 years, we perhaps DO need to redefine what is a ‘hymn’ or not. Black spiritual music has in some cases crossed over to become ‘hymns’ whereas some of the Gaither compositions have been written in a balladic or personal testimony mode which precludes their easy transition in Hymnals.

        Maybe Daniel or some other critic can help us define the specific divisions we might divide SGM music into? Bill, for example, often makes a distinction between a hymn and a ‘convention song’ where I am not clear on the difference!

      • To be a convention song, a song typically has to have at least a melody and a counterpoint – that counterpoint being a separate melody frequently but not always carried by the bass.

  12. Two that instantly come to mind:
    Florida Boys rendition of “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” of recent era as well as their rendition of “Farther Along” from the Gospel Singing Juiblee Days.

    What about the Stamps version of “Sweet Sweet Spirit” from the Elvis days? Anchormen did a great a capella version of “Revive Us Again” in the mid 90’s. There are a bunch of others I’m sure.

  13. Oh yeah, Tony, besides the Stamps, the Imperials did it first (but I prefer the Stamps)

  14. Anything from Greater Vision’s Hymns of the Ages album. THe arrangements (with the genius of Lari Goss) are such that the melody and lyric aren’t lost, but it’s still different enough to where you notice new things each time you listen. I also really like Heaven’s Jubilee from Gold CIty’s A Capella Gold project. CLASSIC STUFF! I wish i could find that CD somewhere. I would venture to say that BFA’s new A Capella album will be the same. And who can forget about the Martins, Doxology? That is, in my opinion, the standard for special arrangements of hymns/familiar songs.

  15. In no particular order:

    Worthy the Lamb – GVB, Reunited (hymn 285, Hymns for the Family of God, pub 1976)

    All People That on Earth Do Dwell – The Martins

    Tell Me the Story of Jesus/I Love to Tell the Story – Charlotte Ritchie & Ivan Parker, GGS Rock of Ages

    Sitting at the Feet of Jesus – GVB & EHSSQ, Together

    Satisfied – GVB, God is Good

    O Love That Will Not Let Me Go – GVB, Best of the GVB

    Great is Thy Faithfulness/How Big is God/How Great Thou Art – Anthony Burger

    His Name is Wonderful – EHSSQ, Influenced II

    And, although he’s not strictly SG, (but we’re talking about creativity here, yes?), Dino’s Peace Series features mostly hymns, many of them married to classical pieces. My favorite is New World Symphony 2nd Movement (Going Home)/Only Trust Him. Gorgeous.

    I grew up singing Love Lifted Me out of the (red) hymnal – so it must be pretty old!

    I also did not realize that I Bowed On My Knees has been classified as a hymn.

  16. What pops into my mind first is Greater Vision’s Hymns of the Ages project, particularly the Lily of the Valley/Fairest Lord Jesus medley and A Mighty Fortress is Our God, both for the stellar harmonies and outstanding arrangements.

    I love pretty much any version of hymns that the Isaacs sing. Particularly their renditions of It is Well With My Soul and The Love of God. Both renditions play up the intensely intricate harmonies of the vocals and give a nice, subtle accompaniment that beautifully compliments.

    Sometimes I think things are beautiful in their simplicity. I absolutely adore the Ruppes version of Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross from their Born to Serve project. The song is done very delicately and simply and to me it is stunning.

  17. Not sure if the arrangement is as creative as being looked for, but I really like the Martins He Leadeth Me. (I prefer their first performance on the Gaither video.)

    Also, the Gaither Trio (with Goss arrangement) did an album. My favorites as I recall (other than Going Home) were When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and God Leads Us Along/Precious Lord.

    • I love all three. 🙂

      • Yeah me too, but I think Going Home is a bit better. English’s lead and specifically second solo are great. It is also fun how Gloria sings lower than English a lot on this song in particular, but really quite a bit as I recall.

  18. I guess I should have put the Gaither Trio CD name down. It was Hymn Classics and was done shortly after English joined the trio. (After McSpadden’s departure)

  19. Not for argument, but just contributing to the discussion here, I would submit another consideration to classifying a song as a hymn. There are exceptions to this, but I think it is always good if the song is one that can be sung by an average congregation. If the range is way out of anyone’s capacity, or it really requires following a complex melody, that to me is a defect. (Though it’s not insurmountable, as in “Christ Arose” or “Gloria in Exelcis Deo.” But remember that those songs aren’t sung on a very regular basis, either!) “I Bowed on my Knees” strikes me as not quite a hymn on those counts.

    I’m OK with y’all disagreeing!

  20. Not for argument, but just contributing to the discussion here, I would submit another consideration to classifying a song as a hymn. There are exceptions to this, but I think it is always good if the song is one that can be sung by an average congregation. If the range is way out of anyone’s capacity, or it really requires following a complex melody, that to me is a defect. (Though it’s not insurmountable, as in “Christ Arose” or “Gloria in Exelcis Deo.” But remember that those songs aren’t sung on a very regular basis, either!) “I Bowed on my Knees” strikes me as not quite a hymn on those counts.

    I’m OK with y’all disagreeing!
    (Pardon me if this is a double submission, but it looks like it didn’t go through…)

    • I actually agree with the overall concept. One octave or one octave plus a note are about as far as you can go with sustained notes. However, if the lowest note is an inverted fourth, or the highest is a quick passing eighth note, you can get away with one or (max) two more.

      But . . . while I agree with you in concept, I’m pretty sure that the specific example at hand is actually singable congregationally. Without the traditional English flourishes, it’s actually just a straight octave, comfortably within our congregational range.

      The bluegrass groups who sing this song are closer to the original. Here’s a video worth watching as much because of the singer’s phenomenal guitar skills as the song:

      Count the notes. The opening words are on the inverted fourth (i.e., G in the key of C), and the highest the melody gets in the chorus, even with his flourishes, is an octave higher.

      • “I Bowed On My Knees” is most certainly not a hymn, and thank goodness! I would hate to have it taking up space in my hymnal. 😉

        But there are others that I do like that aren’t hymns either, e.g. “He Touched Me,” “Because He Lives.” These are gospel songs. Not hymns.

      • Do you know what year it was written? It might actually be, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve heard it done “straight,” by the Blackwood Brothers I do believe, before a certain singer jazzed it up.

      • Ha! I hunted the date down, finally. 1923. So it’s older than I thought. Interesting, though I haven’t seen it in any hymnal I’ve used. I should see if I can find the Blackwood Brothers’ take on it.

      • I was thinking it was 1910s or 1920s, but I didn’t remember for sure.

  21. I personally enjoy the bluegrass versions of most of the hymns. I love to hear Ralph Stanley sing “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.” But, I also love the rendition of Amazing Grace to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.” And, I enjoyed hearing “Amazing Grace” sang to the tune of “At the Cross.” That was pretty as well. Artist wise, I love the Crabb Family version of “I’d Rather have Jesus.”

  22. I didn’t have time to read all of the post, (although, I can’t believe you let one through) but I didn’t see the Martins. They did some really neat stuff on their hymn project. Pick any of them. They were all very unique and very good.

  23. What about Speers arrangement of “Love Lifted Me?” With the creative genius of Harold Lane, 5 part harmony, and a really fast tempo, I think that was the best version. Florida Boys did “Count Your Blessings” that really was good on their “Up Tempo” album. I also liked Blue Ridge Quartet’s version of “In the Garden” with all the violins.

  24. Hooray for getting over 50 comments on a blog post! 😀

  25. Hooray for you and JR putting us over the top! 🙂

  26. Tommy Fairchild’s arrangement of He Hideth My Soul for the Blackwood Brothers Quartet.

    • It’s an honor for you to stop by! Should you notice this comment, a question: I have a few Blackwood Brothers recordings of the song: 1972 – This Could Be the Dawning of that Day version, 1975 – Hymns of Gold version, 2006 – Rock of Ages version. Which is the version?