December 6. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” - African American Spiritual
Go, tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain, That Jesus Christ is born.
While shepherds kept their watching Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens There shone a holy light. Refrain.
The shepherds feared and trembled, When lo! above the earth,
Rang out the angels chorus That hailed the Savior’s birth. Refrain.
Down in a lowly manger The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation That blessèd Christmas morn. Refrain.
After the Civil War, an African American choir director in Tennessee named John Wesley
Work was on a mission. His goal was to preserve the Spirit-filled songs of black Americans from the years of slavery which had mostly been passed on by oral tradition. Work was one of few educated African Americans in the South and he used his knowledge and perseverance to teach the lessons of the Christian life through these old songs.
Work's music influenced a nearby black college's choir and soon its Fisk Jubilee singers were taking the Negro spirituals with them as they traveled around the country and even to England to perform for Queen Victoria. John Work's labors to revive these spiritual songs influenced his own church and family as well. His son and brother both continued the work
Collecting, composing and singing these traditional African American spirituals. Frederick Works, John Works' brother, is credited with bringing attention to the song "Go Tell It on the Mountain", whose author was never discovered.
Unlike many of the mournful lyrics and somber tones of the typical spiritual, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" was a joyous exclamation about the true meaning of Christmas--a subject not often put into song by slaves. John Work II and Frederick Work left the words intact, but changed the music to a more upbeat tune suitable for the Fisk Jubilee Singers to present to their audiences. In the 1880's, the Singers took "Go Tell It on the Mountain" to America and the world.
But that's not the end of the story! In 1909, the song was published in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations. John Work III, the third generation of the highly educated Work family, graduated from Julliard and studied history and music. He followed his father and grandfather in his devotion for documenting and preserving an important part of America's musical history. Sometimes he traveled across the country to interview elderly former slaves who had sung the spirituals themselves!
Sometime during the Great Depression, John Work III looked at "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and decided to expand upon the song. Whether he composed the new additional lyrics or found them through his research is not known, but the final product is the song we recognize today. It was published in 1940 and became more popular than ever. Through the dedication of the Work family, the words of an unknown slave were shared "over the mountain and everywhere"!