Christmas: The Story Behind “Go, Tell It on the Mountain”

Here’s another Christmas carol post! Santa Claus arrives in two days, y’all. I figured people would be busy, so Merry Christmas in advance. This post focuses on a hymn written in a very different context from the last two, The Story Behind “Joy to the World” and The Story Behind “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I’ve enjoyed learning this information myself and will start these earlier next year!

John Wesley Work Jr.

John Wesley Work Jr. (not to be confused with his son, John Wesley Work III) lived 1871-1925, much later than Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, in Tennessee (mostly Nashville). His father directed a church choir, so it’s no surprise that Work grew up loving music, too. His denomination is unspecified, but we might assume that his family was Methodist if they cherished the name “John Wesley.” Work attended Fisk University, and some of the members from his father’s choir participated in the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who have been instrumental (ha) in keeping the legacy of African-American spirituals alive. He began teaching Latin and Greek at the university in 1904. Work and his wife worked with the FJS for over fifteen years. Work is considered the first African-American collector of folk songs and spirituals. Aided by his brother, Work compiled slave songs and spirituals into New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1901 and New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1907; the latter contained “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” Whether Work actually helped edit the song lyrics or simply published them for the first time is unclear. He worked as an educator all his life but was forced to resign his position as the choir director by prejudiced people in 1923. He died in 1925 as the president of Roger Williams University in Nashville. Two of his sons, Julian Work and Work III, also went on to pursue music.

“Go, Tell It on the Mountain”

mike-dewey-4487

As with many Christmas carols, a cloudy past makes “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” no less important to American culture. Many African-American spirituals (and other parts of their worship services) feature the technique of repetition. Often, the repeated words are used as a call-and-response (“Every Praise” is one example), but other times, the words simply reiterate ideas. They may have subconsciously borrowed from Hebrew Psalmists who often repeat words. Imagine a song you like with a chorus. Do new implications and connotations come from the chorus each time it plays again as you consider it with the verses? Repetitive phrases in Psalms or African-American spirituals seem simplistic, but when context is continuously added to a chorus by the verses surrounding it, the chorus paradoxically grows in clarity yet complexity. As you move through “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” the wonderful “it” that is being told on the mountain develops. [Side note: Ideas regarding deliberate repetition remain relevant to oral rhetoric and warrant future investigation!]

Lyrics

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens,
There shone a holy light:
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo! above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our Savior’s birth:
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

Down in a lowly manger
Our humble Christ was born
And God send us salvation,
That blessed Christmas morn:
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

When I am a seeker,
I seek both night and day;
I seek the Lord to help me,
And He shows me the way:
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall,
And if I am a Christian,
I am the least of all.
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

[Most information came from this biographical page and this article on the hymn, though Wikipedia was also consulted.]

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s