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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.