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,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
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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.