by JANE SCHROEDER
Editor’s note: At Christmas, many of us enjoy singing a rousing and hearty carol with somewhat different origins than many carols. “Go Tell it on the Mountain” emerged from the work fields of the South, born from the inspiration of a slave’s Christmas; how this music came to prominence in many hymnals with its joyful expression of the exuberance and meaning of Christmas is a history that needs more telling.
We all know the tragic legacy of slavery especially in the American south which has affected our whole nation, even today. But it was the contribution of unknown African American slaves who, while longing for freedom and suffering incredible cruelty and humiliation, that many somehow managed to encounter the powerful touch of God’s spirit and love in ways that manifested themselves in songs of unparalleled magnificence and beauty.
Even more amazing than the songs themselves is the fact any of them even survived, simply because many of these composers weren’t able to read or write. For the most part, their works were unpublished for decades and passed along only in the oral tradition. A few songs were spread from the fields to small slave churches along roads via work gangs, and eventually to white churches and even large concert halls in both the South and the North. Many of them, however, were lost, their inspirational lessons in song forgotten, as were the testimonies they contained. Had it not been for a very special American family and the dynamic voices of a college choir located in Nashville, Tenn., perhaps all of them would have been gone.
Not long after the Civil War, John Wesley Work, an African American church choir director and scholar in Nashville, felt the new generation of black southerners could best understand the importance of spirituality by learning the songs their forebears sang during the dark days of slavery.
In Work’s church choir there were several students from nearby Fisk University. The school opened in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to all, irrespective of color. As a way of earning money for the university, George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor, created a nine-member choral ensemble and took them on tour. The group headed out October 6, 1871. Work desired to share with the world uplifting arrangements of Negro spirituals.
During an era when few blacks were able to travel more than a few miles from their birthplace, these singers toured the world, appearing in England before Queen Victoria, and at the White House for President Chester Arthur, 21st President of the U.S. While on tour, the group became physically and emotionally drained. As a gesture of hope and encouragement, Mr. White named them “The Jubilee Singers,” a Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee from the Biblical Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25. Their music expressed a passion for life and living that few people had ever experienced, and they became a monumental force in first exposing the musical gifts of these early African Americans.
With no hope of earthly freedom, probably unable to even read the Bible, this unknown slave imagined the shepherds’ emotions as a powerful light from heaven shone down on them.
John Work passed his love for music and history on to his son, John Wesley Work II. The latter became a folk singer, composer and collector of Negro spirituals, and, eventually, a professor of history and Latin at Fisk College. His wife was the music teacher for the Jubilee Singers. Along with Work’s brother, Frederick, this second generation of Works kept the flame of spiritual music burning brightly and managed to save a huge number of spirituals from being lost or forgotten.
One of these songs was “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” There remains some debate as to who initially uncovered this song, but Frederick Work was one of the first to note the song’s power and potential. The song had emerged from the fields of the South, born from the inspiration of a slave’s Christmas, and it was unique in that, of the hundreds of Negro spirituals the Work family saved from extinction, few had been written about Christmas. Most of the spirituals had centered on earthly pain and suffering, and the joy and happiness only heaven seemed to offer. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was a triumphant piece that embraced the wonder of lowly shepherds touched by God at the very first Christmas.
With no hope of earthly freedom, probably unable to even read the Bible, this unknown slave imagined the shepherds’ emotions as a powerful light from heaven shone down on them. Frightened by a power they couldn’t begin to understand, they were greeted by angelic voices trumpeting the birth of a Savior. Leaving their flock, uncertain as to why they were going, these confused shepherds went to see a baby in the most humbling of surroundings. It was in that place they found understanding, knowledge and love. As the crowds listened to the Jubilee Singers perform this song, many were brought to tears, others to their knees.
When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day,
I asked the Lord to help me,
And he showed me the way.
Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere,
Go tell it on the mountain,
Our Jesus Christ is born.
John II and Frederick rearranged the music into an anthem-like structure that would suit choirs such as Fisk’s Jubilee Singers. In 1909, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was published in Thomas Fenner’s book “Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations.” Still, without the continued contribution of a third generation of the Work family, this song, and scores of other spirituals, would probably have been forever forgotten.
Like his father and grandfather, John Work III, a graduate of Julliard School of Music, was a devoted student of history and music. He continued to uncover and save unknown spirituals, many times traveling hundreds of miles to seek out elderly slaves who had sung them. He devoted years of his life documenting this important facet of American culture.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Work took another look at what his uncle and father had done with “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Using their notes and arrangements as well as the materials he had dug up through interviews and research, he took the old song and reworked it one more time, adding a new arrangement and at least one new stanza.
Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born,
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.
It isn’t known if Work composed these new lyrics or simply found them during his research, but they were a perfect fit to the words the Jubilee Singers had sung 50 years before. John Work III’s arrangement—the one we know today—was published in “American Negro Songs and Spirituals” in 1940.
Over the past 50 years, the song’s popularity has continued to grow. While the melody is infectious, it is the spirit of the words that seem to provide the song’s real power. As an unknown humble slave revealed his own prayers and faith, he had little knowledge the inspiration he felt would eventually touch millions around the world. Truly, this humble servant didn’t tell the glorious news only on the mountain, but “over the hills and everywhere.”
JANE SCHROEDER is a freelance writer from Indiana.