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Why you will love the African-American Heritage Hymnal

Updated on September 19, 2014

The riches of the black church music tradition in a book!

A lot of the songs that are sung in African-American churches have been passed down as an oral tradition. You don't remember when you heard the song for the first time, it feels like you were born knowing it. You sing it in services, and pretty soon you hear your children singing along. Many of our great songs are rarely written down for posterity.

But there are some books that have captured the music of the black church, and one that I love is the African American Heritage Hymnal. Since I first discovered it, I have come to regard it as indispensable to my work as a choir director and a student of gospel music.

What makes this hymnal what it is

Quoting from the dust jacket on the African American Heritage Hymnal:

"This 1100 page hymnal is the first major book of its kind to be published in decades; it is the culmination of eight years of inspired work by a committee of more than thirty musicians and pastors, including many national leaders in African American worship and gospel music.

The 575 hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs in this book represent the common repertoire of African American churches across the United States."

That's right -- 575 songs covering a huge range of Christian music styles.

The wealth of content in this book also includes:

  • Litanies that apply to many different topics, events, and holidays, including some specific African-American observances.
  • Responsive scripture readings on different subjects.
  • Related scripture verses preceding every hymn in the book!

This comprehensive songbook is the perfect resource for African-American churches. It also belongs in the library of anyone who has an involvement with gospel music, whether as a musician, choir director, singer, teacher, musicologist, or in any other capacity.

African American Heritage Hymnal: 575 Hymns, Spirituals, and Gospel Songs
African American Heritage Hymnal: 575 Hymns, Spirituals, and Gospel Songs

Rev. Dr. Delores Carpenter, General Editor

Rev. Nolan E. Williams, Jr., Music Editor

Published by GIA Publications, Inc.

Book design & layout by Jeffry Mickus

 

Opening this hymnbook is like opening a treasure chest of gospel music

I was turned on to the African American Heritage Hymnal by a fellow choir director. As I opened it up and started browsing through, I was absolutely amazed. Songs of my childhood that I'd heard in church for as long as I could remember, that I had never imagined I would see in printed form. Plus so many other types of gospel songs as well. It was hard for me to hand the book back to its owner, and I knew that I needed to have one of my own.

I'm reminded of that scripture that I love to relate to choir directing: Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old. -- Matthew 13:52

The African American Heritage Hymnal has those kind of treasures. The editors of this songbook cover every type of music that is sung in the black church:

  • They have the mainstream hymns that you would find in standard hymnals but are also popular in African-American churches.
  • They have old Negro spirituals that connect us to the spiritual roots of our forefathers.
  • They have those congregational songs that we've been singing for generations, but have never seen written out in sheet music before.
  • They have modern praise & worship songs that originated in the white church tradition and have crossed over to black churches.
  • They even have some of those "hit songs" from contemporary gospel music artists that have been adopted for congregational singing.

Turning every page is a delight. With each page, you find a beloved old song, or one of your favorite new ones, or one that you used to love but had forgotten about, or maybe one that you haven't heard before (your parents might know it, though). And you'll want to share your finds with the person sitting next to you, or with your parents, or with your choir or praise team.

Marian Anderson singing a Negro spiritual in a performance in Washington, D. C.
Marian Anderson singing a Negro spiritual in a performance in Washington, D. C.

Negro spirituals

There is worldwide interest in the music that originated from the black American slavery experience. The plaintive melodies and deep emotions expressed in spirituals appeal to everyone. And an important part of preserving those traditions is making sure that people have access to them in written form.

It seems like some of our greatest spirituals are heard more often in concert halls and on the radio than in church (only once in my life have I heard someone actually sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in church!). Seeing them in front of us in a hymnal may inspire us to give them a larger place in our services.

These are some of the spirituals that can be found in the African American Heritage Hymnal:

  • Hush, Hush, Somebody's Callin' My Name
  • I Want Jesus to Walk with Me
  • Go Down, Moses ("Let My People Go")
  • Every Time I Feel the Spirit
  • Steal Away to Jesus
  • Ride On, King Jesus
  • Wade in the Water
  • The Old Ship of Zion

Building dedication for a Baptist church in Washington, D. C.
Building dedication for a Baptist church in Washington, D. C.

Congregational songs

These are the songs that have no traceable origin, but they're sung in black churches every Sunday. Passed down as an oral tradition, but never written down.

As much as we all love these songs, I fear that we have been guilty of thinking of them as "not real hymns". But they are just as real and just as important as any other church music. The African American Heritage Hymnal gives these wonderful songs that sense of validation by printing them in full sheet music form and putting them in a hymnbook right alongside The Solid Rock and Joy to the World. You'll want to share your surprise and delight when you see these beloved songs in the book: "Look! They have He's Sweet I Know in a hymnal!"

You'll find these (and more!) great traditional black congregational songs in the African American Heritage Hymnal:

  • The Lord is Blessing Me Right Now
  • We Are Soldiers in the Army
  • What a Mighty God We Serve
  • I'm So Glad Jesus Lifted Me
  • Come to Jesus
  • I've Got a Feelin' (Everything's Gonna Be Alright)
  • So Glad I'm Here
  • In the Name of Jesus (We Have the Victory)
  • Bless that Wonderful Name of Jesus

Richard Smallwood is credited on seven songs in the African-American Heritage Hymnal.
Richard Smallwood is credited on seven songs in the African-American Heritage Hymnal.

Contemporary gospel music

A lot of songs that we first heard on records and on the radio we loved so much that we started singing them in church. Songs from our favorite gospel artists like:

  • Andrae Crouch
  • James Cleveland
  • Edwin Hawkins
  • Richard Smallwood
  • Thomas Whitfield
  • Jessy Dixon
  • Twinkie Clark
  • even Kirk Franklin!

Now they're in a hymnbook. With some of these songs, we don't sing the entire song in church. Maybe just the chorus (like on God Is by James Cleveland). So that's the only part of the song that's in the hymnal.

Also, the authors of the African American Heritage Hymnal modified the arrangements of some of the songs to make them easier for congregations to sing. For example, they rearranged some of the harmonies on Total Praise so that folks singing the alto and tenor parts don't have to hit such high notes.

Onward, Christian Soldiers is one of the standard hymns found in the African-American Heritage Hymnal.
Onward, Christian Soldiers is one of the standard hymns found in the African-American Heritage Hymnal.

Standard hymns

There are many hymns here that you would find in any other hymnal in any church in America. I suppose they could have chosen to make a book that only featured the songs that originated in the black gospel tradition, but that would mean that churches would need to have two hymnals. Instead you'll find ALL of the songs that you want to sing at church in one book.

In the African American Heritage Hymnal, the standard hymns are written in largely the same way as anywhere else, but there are some instances where songs are written a little bit differently to reflect the way they are sung by black congregations.

For example, you know the cherished favorite Glory to His Name. When this is sung in black churches, many of us sing it this way:

Down at the cross where my Savior died

Down where for cleansing from sin I cried

There to my heart was the blood applied

Singing glory to His name

The word "singing" in the last line is not a part of the original lyrics to the song and is not found in the standard sheet music. But it's included in the African-American Heritage Hymnal because that's the way we sing it.

Another example: On Nothing But the Blood, the rhythm on the words "nothing but the blood" is written differently (using triplets) to reflect the way black churches do the song.

The standard hymns in here are numerous. Let me drop a few names:

  • Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You
  • A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
  • Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (3 versions!)
  • Where He Leads Me
  • Close to Thee
  • Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone
  • Rock of Ages
  • Revive Us Again
  • Showers of Blessing
  • Blessed Assurance

The hymnal lists 12 songs by Isaac Watts, 11 by Fanny Crosby, 4 by Phillip Bliss, 4 by Elisha Hoffman, and many more.

So don't worry about missing out on all the wonderful songs that we have gotten from our white brothers and sisters. The African American Heritage Hymnal covers all the bases.

Bill Gaither is credited on eight songs in the African-American Heritage Hymnal
Bill Gaither is credited on eight songs in the African-American Heritage Hymnal

Praise & worship songs

The African American Heritage Hymnal features some of the best of the contemporary praise & worship songs that have also crossed over into the black church repertoire. Songs like:

  • I Love You Lord (And I Lift My Voice)
  • Our God Is an Awesome God
  • There's Something About That Name
  • Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary
  • The Family of God
  • O How He Loves You and Me
  • Let's Just Praise the Lord
  • Oh the Glory of Your Presence


Rev. Dr. Delores Carpenter, General Editor

Rev. Nolan E. Williams, Jr., Music Editor

Published by GIA Publications, Inc.

Book design & layout by Jeffry Mickus

Buy the hymnal recordings!

There are two albums that have been made to complement the African American Heritage Hymnal. These recordings have a very "trained voice" singing style, so it sounds different from the "natural voice" sound that you would hear when these songs are sung in a typical black church.

Do you own the African-American Heritage Hymnal? - or would you like to?

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      I do not on a copy but i entend to get a copy. I was just i child when we would sing these hyms in a church called lil zion now i am grown and still remember these songs,yes i would like to get a copy. iam youn but i have always like the old time religon.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      No I dobn't own one. I went to visist in a church one evening and these were in the vestiview. I was truly blesssed just turning the pages and being reminded of my heritage and songs my Grandmother used to sing. I would love own one and maybe even encourage my Pastor to make them available in my place of worship. thank you!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Yes, my church choir has been using it for several years now. Excellent!! I attended the Hampton Univ. Ministers' Conference years ago and purchased several to take back to the choir. Another good songbook is Zion Still Sings; it also has mostly contemporary gospel songs.

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      moonlitta 5 years ago

      "Wade in the water", "Go Down Moses" are my school favorites (find that tiny Bulgaria on the world map, and know we sing spirituals in English schools here too:) Mrs Christina Kozhuharova is the name of my teacher- I find this amazing...Thanks for bringing wonderful memories back:)

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      carolbrusegar 6 years ago

      When I was a church music director (until about 4 years ago), we used the AAHH a lot. It's great! Thanks for doing the lens!

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 6 years ago

      We always sang Wade in the Water in camp. I don't think I have ever heard it sung by real singers and properly! I look forward to that.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 6 years ago from New Zealand

      Congratulations on your purple star!

    • LoKackl profile image

      LoKackl 6 years ago

      Very nice idea for a lens! Beautifully done. squidangel blessed. Congratulations on your purple star! I wonder if itunes has any of these songs to download(?)

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