The Story Behind: Go, Tell It On the Mountain

by Hymncharts Team

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

In the tapestry of Christmas carols, few resonate with the soul-stirring power and historical significance of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” This African-American spiritual, immortalized by John Wesley Work Jr. and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, transcends mere melody to become a testament to resilience, faith, and the enduring spirit of hope.

The Roots in Nashville: John Wesley Work’s Mission

Born into a world where African-American spirituals were a lifeline of faith and expression, John Wesley Work Jr., a Nashville native and son of a church choir director, was captivated by these soulful songs. Despite his academic pursuits leading him to earn a Master’s in Latin and teach ancient Latin and Greek, Work’s heart remained tethered to music. He became a pivotal figure in preserving these spirituals, which were primarily conveyed through oral tradition.

Work’s first significant contribution, “New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers,” included “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” a song that encapsulates the jubilant announcement of Jesus Christ’s birth. His efforts ensured that these songs, once confined to the memories of those who suffered and hoped under slavery, found a permanent place in the annals of American music.

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Carrying the Torch of Negro Spirituals

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, named after the Biblical year of jubilee, were more than a choir; they were pioneers in a new era of musical and cultural significance. Embarking on a courageous tour in 1871 to rescue Fisk University from financial peril, they carried not only the university’s treasury but also a rich heritage of African-American spirituals. Initially reluctant to perform these spirituals publicly due to their painful association with slavery and sacredness to their ancestors, the singers gradually embraced them as powerful symbols of identity and resilience.

As they journeyed from Nashville to New York and then across Europe, the Fisk Jubilee Singers transformed their repertoire, increasingly featuring spirituals like “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” These songs, once private expressions of hope and sorrow, became public anthems of triumph over adversity. The ensemble’s performances transcended mere entertainment; they educated and moved audiences of all backgrounds, securing international acclaim for both the genre and Fisk University.

Their eighteen-month tour was not just a musical endeavor but a mission to preserve and celebrate a crucial part of African-American heritage. The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ success turned the tide for their university’s financial woes and marked a significant moment in the history of Negro spirituals. They became cultural ambassadors, bringing these spirituals to a global audience and ensuring their enduring legacy.

Reflecting on “Go, Tell It On the Mountain,” we recognize the immense contribution of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Their dedication and talent transformed these spirituals from shadows of history into celebrated treasures, securing their place in the world’s musical tapestry. Their story is one of hope, courage, and the transformative power of music, resonating across generations and cultures.

Fisk Jubilee Singers
Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Evolution of a Spiritual

“Go, Tell It On the Mountain,” as we know it today, underwent several transformations before reaching its current form. From its early versions in “Religious Folk Songs of The Negro” as a “Christmas Plantation Song” to R. Nathaniel Dett’s enriching harmonizations, “Go, Tell It On the Mountain” evolved while maintaining its core message of revelation and joy. The song’s adaptation over time showcases its flexibility and the ability to resonate with diverse audiences while preserving its profound message.

John Wesley Work’s Influence and Legacy

The Work family’s dedication, especially that of John Wesley Work Jr., played an instrumental role in elevating “Go, Tell It On the Mountain” to a beloved Christmas carol. Work’s role in transcribing and preserving this song ensured that the spirituals, and the stories they carried, would not be lost to history. His work, alongside his brother Frederick Jerome Work and later his son, John Work III, solidified the song’s place in both the Christmas tradition and the broader context of American music.

A Symbol of Unity and Hope

Remarkably, the Christmas song transcended its origins to become a symbol of unity during times of strife. Its message of hope and deliverance found resonance during the Civil Rights movement, providing comfort and strength to those fighting for equality and justice. The song’s adaptability to various contexts, from Christmas celebrations to civil rights marches, speaks to its universal appeal and timeless message.

The Global Reach of a Timeless Hymn

Today, “Go, Tell It On the Mountain” stands not just as an African-American spiritual or a Christmas carol, but as a global hymn of hope and joy. It is a reminder of the power of faith and the resilience of the human spirit. Its widespread inclusion in hymnals and its adoption by diverse cultures around the world attest to its universal message and appeal.

Reflecting on the Message

As we sing “Go, Tell It On the Mountain,” let us remember its roots in the struggle for freedom and dignity. It invites us to reflect on the enduring power of faith and the importance of sharing the message of hope and love. In every note and every word, it carries the legacy of those who came before us, urging us to proclaim the good news to all.

The Enduring Legacy of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain”

“Go, Tell It On the Mountain” is more than just a hymn; it’s a historical narrative, a message of liberation, and a testament to the enduring human spirit. Its journey from the plantations of the South to the global stage is a story of transformation and hope, resonating across generations. As we continue to share its message, we honor the legacy of John Wesley Work Jr., the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the countless unnamed voices who sang for freedom and brought this spiritual to life.

In the words of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain,” we find a reminder of our shared humanity, our capacity for resilience, and the transformative power of music to uplift, unite, and inspire.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Who wrote “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the song?

While its exact origins are unclear, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” was first published by John Wesley Work Jr., who played a key role in popularizing and preserving this African-American spiritual.

Where in the Bible does it say Go Tell It on the Mountain?

The phrase “Go Tell It on the Mountain” isn’t directly from the Bible. The hymn is inspired by the Biblical narrative of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20, who spread the news of Jesus’ birth, akin to proclaiming it from the mountains.

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light.

The shepherds feared and trembled,
When lo! above the earth,
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our Savior’s birth.

Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.

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