Reflections on Go Tell It on the Mountain

By the Mane lead singer and guitarist Jeremy Ross put it eloquently when he said, “When we play and sing these songs, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We sing lyrics and melodies so much bigger than ourselves. We join in with Christians throughout history longing for the day when we will experience our Savior coming as He promised.”  Many of these “giants” have a name: J. M. Neale, Charles Wesley, and Rowland Prichard.  Some, however, are lost to history and will forever remain anonymous due to obscurity, author’s choice, or the culture from which they emerge.  “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, the track that closes “What Child”,  is one of the latter.

Origins

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is an African American spiritual that dates back to at least 1865, according to hymnary.org.  Because it came from the population of enslaved African Americans, scholars are not sure who the author is.  Negrospirituals.com says, “The authors of the first Negro spirituals are not known: these were spontaneous, unwritten songs.”   Furthermore, many spirituals are believed to have had a double meaning, from hiding messages about longing for freedom from slavery, to descriptions and instructions for finding the underground railroad.  So whether composed as group improvisations, or by individuals who wished to avoid reprisal, authorship of many spirituals remains unknown.  What is known is that through this human tragedy were born many enduring songs of praise, supplication, and worship.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and John Wesley Work II

work_jwjrThe Penguin Book of Carols attributes the popularization of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  Fisk University was founded for the education of freed slaves by missionaries in the 1860s.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers was formed in 1867, and toured to help raise funds for building.  By the end of the 19th century, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had sung with D. L. Moody’s Crusades, at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle, and before Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” was added to the Fisk Jubilee Singers repertoire by John Wesley Work II.  Work had attended Fisk University, and subsequently studied composition at what would later become Juilliard.  He became a professor of Latin and Greek at Fisk University and had a passion for collecting and arranging African American spirituals.  He published “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as part of Folk Song of the American Negro in 1907.

Our Take

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Luke 2:10-11  The wonderful news of the celebration of Christmas, is that Jesus Christ, our Savior, was born into the world.  An event recorded by the Bible as singular enough to be heralded by angels, and significant enough to be shouted everywhere throughout the centuries, whether to those shackled by the spiritual bonds of sin, or the physical bonds of slavery. As the song says,  “God sent us salvation, that blessed Christmas morn.”

Like the many of the other songs on the album, our musical arrangement began by harmonically recontextualizing the melody of the original tune by placing it above a new set of chords. Not only did we diverge from the usual harmonization, but we also applied a new rhythmic feel.  This song is usually sung with an easy 4/4 swing, sometimes sounding “laid back” depending on how it’s sung.  We transformed it into a more driven 12/8, to lend more of a sense of urgency to the lyrics.  Listen to the track to hear what we mean.

Lyrics

While shepherds kept their watching
O’er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens,
There shone a holy light:

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

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

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

Down in a lowly manger
Our humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation,
That blessed Christmas morn:

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

Reflections on Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is probably the track from “What Child” least familiar to most people, but it has significant and interesting roots. This hymn was written by one of the founders of the Methodist Movement in the 18th century and was subsequently set to two different tunes, one by an accomplished 18th century German musician, and the other by a nineteen year old Welshman amateur during the following century.

The Lyrics

Charles_WesleyCharles Wesley formed a prayer group at Oxford University in 1727 that set in motion events that would lead to the creation of the Methodist Church, headed by his brother John Wesley.  Charles Wesley wrote many of the hymns found in the Methodist hymnal.  It is possible that he wrote around 6,500 hymns during the course of his life!  One of his hymns for Christmas was “Hark, how all the welkin rings”, which is now known and popularized as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.  He authored “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”, and it was printed in Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, published in 1744.

The Music

“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” was traditionally set to the hymn tune “Stuttgart”.  “Stuttgart” was included in the Psalmodia Sacra, 1715, and is considered to be composed by Christian Friedrich Witt.  Witt was a German organist and kapellmeister who had studied music performance, composition, and counterpoint under several tutors and wrote over 100 of the hymns included in the Psalmodia Sacra.

In contrast, the second hymn tune to which it is commonly set, and the one that we used as the basis for our arrangement, is “Hyfrydol”.  “Hyfrydol”, which means “tuneful” or “pleasant” in Welsh, was composed by a nineteen year old Welshman and amateur musician named Rowland H. Pritchard in 1830, and was later published in his children’s collection Cyfaill y Cantorion (The Singers’ Friend) in 1844.  Another of Wesley’s works, “Love Divine, All Love Excelling” is also frequently paired with this hymn tune.

Chocolate and Peanut Butter, Chocolate and Caramel

The two hymn tunes are quite different, and each affects the lyrics in a different way.  “Stuttgart” has no repeating parts in a single verse, moves in a stately 4/4 time, and has strophic effect upon the lyrics common to many hymns that renders all four verses in equal weight.

Verse Verse 1 Verse 2 Verse 3 Verse 4
Music Music A Music A Music A Music A
Formal Effect Verse Verse Verse Verse
Lyrical Effect Statement Statement Statement Statement

“Hyfrydol” is set in an almost whimsical and lilting 6/8, and actually has the form AAB, where the “B” is equal in length to the two “A”s.  The verses are paired in an alternating fashion AA and B, giving the effect similar to a verse and refrain, or AB couplet.

Verse Verse 1 Verse 2 Verse 3 Verse 4
Music Music AA Music B Music AA Music B
Formal Effect Verse Refrain Verse Refrain
Lyrical Effect Entreatment Extension Entreatment Extension

Our Take

The words of the song not only reflect on the birth of baby Jesus, but bypassing the romanticization of the child in the manger they look to the significant impact that Christ has on human history, the central place He assumes in the Christian’s heart, and the promise of experiencing Him in his full glorification.  “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor. 13:12

By the Mane made a darker and perhaps more musically desperate take on the hymn, making the verses minor with broad beats overlain with super-human arpeggios in the synths, and pleading leads from the guitar.  Listen to it to hear what we mean:

Lyrics

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

Reflections on “Good Christian Men Rejoice”

“What Child” is a compilation of traditional Christmas hymns and carols that we have arranged over the years around our synth rock sound. In fact , the first time By the Mane played together, we performed some of these arrangements. In the process of researching and arranging the hymns, we came to realize that they have a much deeper and richer history than we realized, and we wanted to share some of what we found.

History

The track with the oldest and strangest history by far, is “Good Christian Men”.  The lyrics as we recorded them were adapted from those written in the 19th century by John Mason Neale (lyricist of “Good King Wenceslas” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel”).  Neale, an Anglican Protestant with an affinity for Roman Catholic traditions (see Oxford Movement), was presented with a copy of the Piae Cantiones, a 16th collection of century carols and religious songs, by the British ambassador to Sweden, and used the 14th century carol In Dulci Jubilo (“In Sweet Rejoicing”) for the melody and the basis of his translation.  In Dulci Jubilo is itself notable in that it is sung partially in Latin, and partially in the vernacular (German, in some instances, and Swedish in the source that J. M. Neale used).

In Dulci Jubilo from the Piae Cantiones
In Dulci Jubilo from the Piae Cantiones

Musical Mistakes

The hymn appears in many hymnals as Neale translated it, with a proclamation of “Joy, Joy” or “News, News” right in the middle of the verse that interrupts the verse’s rhythmic flow and feel.  It turns out that Neale misinterpreted the notation, transcribing two minims (half notes) as two breves (double whole notes).  When you listen to our version, you can hear why we chose not to record these lyrics.

Our Take

Lyrically speaking, the song can sound antiquated to our ears. “Good Christian Men” appears biased, even sexist.  Our understanding of the text as we recorded it is that it encourages all Christians, both women and men, to rejoice in the significance of Christmas.  The song specifies Christians, not to exclude others, but because they are the ones who would most likely rejoice in the news of the birth of the Savior.  As Christians believe that Jesus came to offer himself as a living sacrifice for the sins of all who believe, it was necessary that he became flesh and blood first.  Christmas, therefore, is the celebration of the incarnation, the flesh-becoming of God’s Son, Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi (“Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”).  John 1:29 As the song says, “Now you hear of endless bliss/Jesus Christ was born for this/He has opened Heaven’s door/And man is blessed forevermore.”

Musically speaking, the band came up with a rather gritty and cacophonous take on the song, framing the good news of Jesus’ birth against a world that sometimes gives us anything but a reason to rejoice.  Check out the song below to hear what we mean (and listen for the synth at the end called the “MicroBrute” to hear the knob-tweaked feral cries that earn it its name).

Lyrics

Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Listen now to what we say
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before Him bow
And He is in the manger now
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now you hear of endless bliss
Jesus Christ was born for this
He has opened the Heaven’s door
And man is blessed evermore
Christ was born for this
Christ was born for this

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
You don’t need to fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain His everlasting hall
Christ was born to save
Christ was born to save

It’s about Jesus

It’s Christmas. It’s a beautiful and magical time in so many ways, but it’s more dense with subtle and not-so-subtle distractions than any other season. There are so many good things about Christmas that we sometimes can loose track of the best thing.

If, as a band, we could have one Christmas wish, it would be that we could all find both the desire and the discipline to make Jesus the central theme of our celebration. Family and gifts are amazing and beautiful things. Sharing meals with people that we work and play with, and keeping traditions that keep us grounded are activities that we should fully embrace.

The search for the answer to the question, “What Child is This?” should be our source of childlike wonder. Consider the tragedy of a baby born in a dirty barn, or the humility of these shepherds as the first visitor. The struggle that Joseph battled with when discovering Mary’s pregnancy. No one expected God to enter the world in this way. I would ask of you, this Christmas, to take a fresh look at the person of Jesus. Wonder at this God/baby that was born to save us, and how this humble birth was the perfect start to a humble life that would continue to defy expectations, challenge norms, and question authority.

Ask yourself this Christmas, “What Child?” And give yourself room to wonder at the answer.