The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
December 09 2017
Written by: Prophecy in the News
When something really fantastic happens, what is the first thing you want to do?
Tell someone, of course!
The spiritual, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” does just that.
The Negro spiritual was created out of need for expression and communication. It was used by slaves to relay coded messages concerning directions for escapes without the knowledge of plantation masters. Many times these coded messages used biblical names and terms to relate their meaning. Harriet Tubman, the great conductor of the Underground Railroad, was known as General Moses. The words “seeker” and “watchman” in “Go Tell It on the Mountain” most likely refer to an escaping slave seeking freedom and the plantation overseer respectively. Another spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd” refers to the north star of the constellation Big Dipper as the direction to follow to find freedom in the North. The slaves could sing these songs without notice from the white plantation owners and overseers.
The spiritual was also a means of expression. The bondage of slavery was hard to bear. Some of the spiritual songs of the black man were centered on the biblical stories of the Hebrews (who were in slavery in Egypt) and Moses (their Deliverer). Death was viewed as an escape from this bondage, so likewise should be taken that there are few spirituals about the nativity or the birth of Jesus. It is suggested that this may be a result of the slaves’ hope in an Almighty God, a Deliverer, and an all-powerful Deity who could lead them to the promised land of freedom rather than a vulnerable infant.
Spirituals were first noted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During this time, white evangelists introduced to the imported slaves the concept of Christianity using many of the songs of the white church to teach biblical stories. The slaves, with their African roots, tempered the songs to create a new genre. The African influence of syncopation and pentatonic melodies were matched with white harmonies and lyrics to create a new and distinct concept. The songs were passed orally by generations, with each generation modifying the songs. There appears to be little written documentation of the music of the Negro until the late nineteenth century.
Fisk University, created after the Civil War in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, in a former Union fort, was established for the education of emancipated slaves.
In October of 1871, the Fisk Singers were organized in an effort to raise funds for the new school, which was quickly falling into disrepair on limited funds. At first, the singers sang standard and classical selections, without much success. As former slaves or children of slaves, they were well acquainted with spirituals, cabin songs, plantation songs and Jubilee songs, which were composed for religious reasons. These songs were sung among the Singers themselves but were not shared in their concerts. After mediocre acceptance and likewise monetary offerings, the group began to include a few of these songs in their repertoire.
Ella Shepherd, a member of the Singers, was a group’s assistant director and a great resource for these songs of the slaves, which had been passed to her by her mother.
George Leonard White, the group’s director, took note of the response of the audience whenever a spiritual was sung. The quietness of the audience, the tears that appeared, and the applause that followed convinced him that the Negro spiritual was the Singers vehicle to fame and acceptance. At first, the members were reluctant to perform what were considered personal and intimate songs of their faith and their people, learned behind closed doors of slavery from parents and grandparents. At a concert held at Oberlin College in Ohio, the group included the spiritual “Steal Away.” All talking ceased and soft weeping could be heard as the ensemble, being moved to tears themselves, voiced the musical renderings of their hearts. The audience was amazed. Word spread from the congregation. Letters and telegrams were sent out from the listeners urging churches and other towns to invite the singers.
This musical triumph encouraged White to add more spirituals to the performances. He also named the singers the “Jubilee” Singers. After prayer and inspiration, he felt the singers should take their name from the Bible. In Jewish custom, in the fiftieth year, slaves were set free and debts were forgiven as documented in Leviticus 25. From then on, the group was known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
In December 1871, the group sang for the weekly prayer meeting at the Plymouth Church of Brooklyn, which included some of the most influential families in America and was pastured by the famous Henry Ward Beecher. The new repertoire was on the line. It was make or break time, both musically and financially, for the weary group. Unless a substantial offering was received here, the group would not have funds to return home to Nashville. As the rich dark tones of the students’ voices sang out, the congregation grew still. At the concert’s conclusion, Beecher jumped to his feet with $5 in his hand. He encouraged all his members to follow suit and support these students. After that night, everyone wanted to have the Jubilee Singers to perform for them.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world, singing at such venues as the White House for President Ulysses S. Grant and for Queen Victoria in England. They continued across Europe singing in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. In Scotland and Ireland, their individual and collective tales of rising from slavery were written in books that sold out to adoring fans. They found themselves performing for heads of state and dignitaries in some of the world’s most famous concert halls. However, their fame was marred with incidents of hostility against their race, especially in their own country. After performing for the President at the White House, they were thrown out of their hotel because of their race. The group raised over $150,000 for Fisk University and introduced to the world the sacred hymns and songs of their ancestors.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, John W. Work, Jr. and his brother Frederick J. Work, began collecting and promoting the spirituals of slavery. The song, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” was published in the Brothers’ book Folk Songs of the American Negro. In this publication, the song was arranged in anthem style with verses and refrain, making it more easily accessible to the average singer. The song gained popularity because of its energetic and enthusiastic message. It had been popularized by the Fisk Singers but was not written and arranged until it appeared in this book.
It also appeared in Thomas Fenner’s book, Religious Folk Songs of the Negro, As Sung on the Plantations, in 1909. The song was also published in a sequel collection by the Work brothers in 1915. Son John W. Work III continued the legacy started by his father and uncle by uncovering the saving spirituals and publishing them in his book American Negro Songs and Spirituals in 1940. He traveled hundreds of miles collecting songs from former slaves, transcribing them and preserving them for future generation.