This collection originated when I discovered how difficult it was to find hymns and spiritual songs with text, tune, arrangement, and typesetting that were not protected by copyright.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has published a list of hymns and songs that purports to show the copyright status of all songs and hymns in the two current Unitarian Universalist hymnals, Singing the Living Tradition and Singing the Journey. However, this list contains clear errors, e.g., the list claims that “Jubilate Deo” is in the public domain yet it was composed for the Taizé community by Jacques Berthier and is clearly protected by copyright. Or, in a more subtle example, the list claims the words to the hymn “No Number Tallies Nature Up” are in the public domain because they are a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson—but the hymn text actually represents such a substantial rewriting of Emerson’s poem that it may be protected by copyright; unless one can determine who rewrote Emerson’s poem (which I was unable to do), one can’t be sure whether the hymn text is protected or not. Or to take another example, “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom”: while the tune and words are pretty clearly in the public domain, an arrangement copyrighted by Robert Zellner is so well known that though you may think you’re simply improvising in folk style, you’re actually unconsciously repeating material that apparently is covered by copyright. Therefore, we cannot assume that songs and hymns listed as public domain (or “fair use”) in the UUA list are in fact free of copyright in tune, text, and arrangement.
If the UUA’s list identifies a copyright holder, then you have a clear course of action: you can contact the copyright holder and ask for permission to use the song. But what do you do for those hymns and songs that are claimed to be public domain (but which may not be)?
This collection contains hymns and songs that I am confident are actually in the public domain. I’ve carefully researched all tunes, arrangements, and texts to find versions that are in the public domain in the United States. Except where noted below, the tunes, arrangements, and texts have been taken from printed sources dated 1925 or before (i.e., they’re in the public domain in the U.S.). Where I have supplied simple arrangements or other music, or combined or altered tune, text, or arrangement, I’ve released all such work into the public domain.
Remember, these hymns and songs are in the public domain. You don’t need my permission to use them. You don’t need to credit anyone. You can revise them to your heart’s content. You can record them for profit (good luck on that).
Since I don’t want to be sued, I have to warn you that while I believe all tunes, texts, and arrangements are public domain in the U.S., I make no warranty to that effect; nor can I take any responsibility for how others use these hymns and tunes. If you want to ensure that a hymn or song is in the public domain, in the notes below I’ve provided information on my sources, so you can check my research. For hymn tunes composed 1820 or earlier, I try to provide the tune number from Nicholas Temperley’s Hymn Tune Index. For a few later hymn tunes, I provide the tune number from D. DeWitt Wasson’s Hymn-tune Index and Related Materials. For songs listed in the Roud Folk Song Index, I generally provide the Roud number.
For your convenience, I’ve referenced the hymns and songs in this collection to earlier Unitarian Universalist hymnals such as Singing the Living Tradition (UUA, 1993), Singing the Journey (UUA, 2005), and How Can We Keep from Singing? (First Unitarian Church, Los Angeles, 1976).
All hymns are PDF files sized to print on standard 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets. For your convenience the music is proportioned so it can be reduced on a photocopier to fit onto a half sheet suitable for insertion in a typical printed order of service. I’m releasing all musical typesetting into the public domain as well, so that you are free to print these hymns and songs on paper, project them on a screen in a worship service, or show them online in livestreamed services.
This collection of copyright-free hymns is currently stored on on this Google Drive folder.
Note that the above link will take you to Google, a company well known for stealing your data; when visiting Google, I recommend using a private browser such as Firefox in private browsing mode, or Tor browser.
Eventually I hope to store the sheet music on a more trustworthy host, if I can find funding. Don’t hold your breath. More immediately, I plan to make the sheet music available as a print-on-demand book, hopefully by the end of 2023. When I do that, I’ll post the link to the print-on-demand site here.