The Songs of Christmas…Go Tell it On the Mountain

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This is part 7 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

This Christmas carol is different from the ones we have talked about so far. It is different because no one knows who wrote either the lyrics or the music. The truth is, we are fortunate to have this and many other Negro spirituals from the slavery era. Who knows how many old spirituals were lost.

The problem with many of these old spirituals is, they were not written down for some time following freedom for the African-American slaves through the mid-19th century. There was a simple explanation. The overwhelming majority of slaves didn’t know how to read or write. The spirituals were passed from generation to generation through oral tradition. “Go Tell it on the Mountain” is not an exception.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to John Wesley Work, an African-American choir director in Nashville, Tennessee. Work was a rarity for his time. He was an educated black man in the south. Work took a great interest in the experience of blacks during and after the slavery period. He thought that a new generation might learn the importance of spirituality by learning the music of their ancestors.

Work taught at Fisk College. The school was best known for its chorus, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. During a time of history where many people, particularly many blacks were unable to travel far and generally stayed close to the place of their birth, the Fisk Jubilee Singers not only traveled the country, they traveled the world singing before Queen Victoria and President Chester A. Arthur.

Work instilled the same love of music and history in his son that was within him. John Wesley Work II was a folk singer and composer. He also collected old Negro spirituals. Later he became professor of history and Latin at Fisk. His wife was the teacher for the Jubilee Singers. Both he and his brother Frederick kept their father’s work alive.

The two brothers did not want to change the words or the feelings for “Go Tell it on the Mountain but they did a choral arrangement of the piece. In 1880 the Fisk Jubilee Singers took the song to the world.

In 1909 “Go Tell it on the Mountain” Thomas P. Fenner published the spiritual carol. He included it in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations.

The Work family was far from finished with this hymn and others of the African-American tradition. John Wesley Work III, a graduate of Julliard, loved history and music and carried on the work of his father and grandfather. He traveled hundreds of miles to interview aging former slaves to learn more of the tradition. It is because of the work of this family that this important piece of music history is still alive. The youngest Work included a new verse. It is unclear whether he wrote these words or he found them in his research.

The spiritual, as we know it, was first published in American Negro Songs and Spirituals in 1940. Since that time the spiritual has grown in popularity. Today it is sung not just in the United States but all over the world.

Faith and dedication made it possible for us to know this hymn and many others (though there are few others about Christmas). May we be as passionate for the callings God has for us as the Work family has shown for their divine task.

Have a blessed day in the Lord

Joy and Peace,
Keith

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

Sources

Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

Silent Night: The Stories of 40 Beloved Christmas Carols, Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2013.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Tell_It_on_the_Mountain_(song)

Author:

Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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