Behind the Christmas Carol: Go Tell It on the Mountain

African Americans have a rich musical history through the use of passing down stories in the guise of a song.   These songs are called spirituals and the

John W. Work III

John W. Work III

slaves often sung them in the fields, while working and in their celebrations.  These songs have a feeling of “incredible majesty and haunting beauty.”

Go Tell It on the Mountain originated as a spiritual and dates back to at least 1865, although probably much earlier.

The song is considered a Christmas carol because of the original lyrics about Jesus birth.

in 1907, John Wesley Work III, compiled and published Folk Songs of the American Negro.   Works was a professor at Fisk University and a professional musician.  His first love was music, although he also taught Latin and Greek.

Spirituals were passed down orally, so gathering, writing and recording these songs was a major undertaking for John Works.

His brother, Frederick, is said to first recognize the potential and power of the song. go-tell-it-on-the-mountain02

in the 1920s, the Fisk Singers began to perform the song, but it still saw little traction.

Go Tell It on the Mountain gained popularity with the birth and growth of blues, jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll in the early 20th Century.

The spiritual has been recorded by numerous artists, including Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, CeCe Winans, Anne Murray, and Garth Brooks.

Peter, Paul and Mary rewrote some of the lyrics to fit the Civil Rights theme in the early 1960s.

Go Tell It On the Mountain has progressed from the vivid imagination of an illiterate slave to a world famous song in the past two centuries.