Not long after the Civil War, John Wesley Work, an African American church choir director and scholar in Nashville, Tennessee, realized that the rising generation of black southerners might best understand the importance of spirituality by learning the songs their ancestors sang during the days of slavery.
In Work's church choir there were several members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the nearby college of the same name. Work introduced the music to them, and the singers carried it to the world through uplifting arrangements of Negro spirituals. During an era when few African Americans were able to travel more than a few miles from their birthplace, the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world, appearing in England before Queen Victoria and at the White House of President Chester Arthur. The music revealed a passion for life and living that few people had expected from a recently enslaved population, and they became a monumental force in broadcasting the musical talents of African Americans.
John Work passed his love of music and history 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. His wife was the music teacher for the Jubilee Singers. Along with Work's brother, Frederick, this second generation of Works saved a huge number of Negro folk songs from being lost or forgotten.
There will always be some debate over who first uncovered the song “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” but Frederick Work was one of the first to note the song's power. The song had come 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 that 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.
Not wanting to change the dramatic impact of the song's lyrics, John II and Frederick set them intact, but the brothers did rearrange the music into an anthem-like structure that would suit choirs such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In the 1880s, the song became a showpiece in the group’s repertoire.
With no hope of earthly freedom, probably unable to even read the Bible, the unknown slave who composed the song imagined a time and place far, far away: shepherds in Bethlehem, amazed as a brilliant light from heaven shines down on them. Frightened by a power they can't begin to understand, they are greeted by angelic voices trumpeting the birth of a Savior. Leaving their flock, not fully understanding why they are going, these confused men witness a baby in the most humbling of surroundings. Understanding and love overcome them.
Audiences felt the same way. As crowds listened to the choir from Fisk perform the song, many were brought to tears, others to their knees.
In 1909, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was published in Thomas P. Fenner's book Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations. 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, was a devoted student of history and music. This third-generation member of the Work family continued to uncover and save unknown spirituals, many times traveling hundreds of miles to seek out elderly slaves who had sung them. John III 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 reworked the song one more time, creating a new arrangement and adding at least one new stanza. It is not known if Work composed these new lyrics or simply found them during his research, but they fit perfectly with the words the Fisk Jubilee Singers had sung fifty years before. John III's arrangement—the one we know today—was published in American Negro Songs and Spirituals in 1940.
Over the past fifty years, the popularity of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” has continued. The melody is infectious, but it is the spirit of the words that provides the song's real power. As an unknown, humble slave revealed his own prayers and faith, he had little knowledge that the inspiration he felt—probably the only thing of value he ever possessed—would touch millions with the news not only on the mountain, but “over the hills and everywhere.”
Jane Schroeder writes from Indiana.