Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Go, Tell it On the Mountain"

History of Hymns: "Go, Tell it On the Mountain"

By C. Michael Hawn

“Go, Tell It on the Mountain”
by John W. Work, Jr.
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 251

Go, tell it on the mountain,
over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain,
that Jesus Christ is born.

While shepherds kept their watching
o’er silent flocks by night,
behold throughout the heavens
there shone a holy light.*

For the complete text and music, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/while_shepherds_kept_their_watching

“Go, tell it on the mountain” provides the opportunity to tell the story of how singing African American spirituals saved a university.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers (drawing their name from Leviticus 25—the year of jubilee) were founded as a ten-member touring ensemble to raise funds for debt-ridden Fisk University. Taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, they departed on October 6, 1871, from Nashville on their difficult, but ultimately successful eighteen-month tour, a triumph that is still celebrated annually as Jubilee Day on the campus. Though not the original repertoire of the group, by the time they reached New York in December of that year, their concerts grew to include more and more spirituals, until their program consisted primarily of choral arrangements of spirituals or, according to African American scholars C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, “anthemized spirituals.”

They have been credited with keeping the Negro spiritual alive. Spirituals scholar Sandra Jean Graham places this development in context: “The students were at first reluctant ambassadors for the songs of their ancestors. As [Jubilee] singer Ella Sheppard recalled, ‘The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then, too, they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship . . . It was only through persuasion that the students sang their spirituals privately for [the University’s treasurer, George L.] White [who was a white man], and through White’s coercion that they sang them in concert.”

Taking the spiritual to white and black audiences in the United States and Europe earned the school and the spiritual an international reputation. The small ensemble of two quartets and a pianist grew to a full choral ensemble. Other historically black colleges eventually followed the same pattern, including Howard University (Washington, D.C.) and Tuskegee Institute (now University, Tuskegee, Alabama).

The earliest version of the spiritual appeared in in Religious Folk Songs of The Negro, as Sung on The Plantations, new edition (1909) with the heading “Christmas Plantation Song” with different stanzas and in slave dialect:

When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day.
I ask de Lord to help me,
An’ He show me de way.

He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall,
[a reference to Isaiah 21:11-12]
An’ if I am a Christian
I am the least of all.


Go tell it on de mountain,
Over de hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on de mountain,
Dat Jesus Christ is born.

A few smaller and less broadly circulated versions use these stanzas or a variation, for example, “When I was a sinner . . ..”

African Canadian composer R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) added another harmonization and stanza in the volume he edited, Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro As Sung At Hampton Institute (1927). His stanza follows:

If you cannot sing like Angels,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
You can say he died for all.

Dett’s stanza, or some version of it, is now most commonly associated with the spiritual, “There is a balm in Gilead.”

John Wesley Work, Jr. (1872?-1925), along with his brother Frederick Jerome Work (1878?-1942), led the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1898-1904. Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds cites recollections by John Wesley Work, Jr.’s son about the role of “Go, tell it” on the campus: “[John Wesley Work, III] took pleasure in recalling his early days as a child on the campus of Fisk University where his father was a teacher. Very early on Christmas morning, long before sunrise, it was then the custom for students to gather and walk together from building to building singing [“Go, tell it on the mountain].”

Concert arrangements of spirituals were published in Frederick Work’s New Jubilee Songs, as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1902), a collection that may have been co-edited by John Wesley Work, though his name does not appear in this collection. “Go, tell it” appears in another collection for solo voice and four-part choir edited by John Wesley Work, III (Work, Jr.’s son) in American Negro Songs and Spirituals: a Comprehensive Collection of 230 Folk Songs, Religious and Secular (1940).

Drawing on an adaptation of the Work brothers’ setting, The Pilgrim Hymnal (1958), edited by Hugh Porter (1897-1960), professor in the Sacred Music Department at Union Seminary (New York), was the first mainline hymnal to include the spiritual. John Wesley Work’s stanzas based on Luke 2:8-20 have become the standard versions in hymnals:

  1. While shepherds kept their watching . . .
  2. The shepherds feared and trembled . . .
  3. Down in a lowly manger . . .

From this hymnal, versions of “Go, tell it” have spread to the point that it has become one of a “canon” of spirituals found in virtually every hymnal today.

John Wesley Work, Jr. (sometimes designated John Wesley Work II to distinguish him from his son) received his master’s degree from Fisk University, and after further study at Harvard, began teaching Latin and Greek at the University in 1898. He trained the Jubilee Singers and was a leader in preserving and performing African American spirituals. He taught at Fisk University until 1923 when he was relieved of his duties due to changing attitudes toward the spiritual. He then went on to be President of Roger Williams University in Nashville until his death in 1925.

UM Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young notes African American theologian James H. Cone’s interpretation of this spiritual. Dr. Cone states that “the conquering King, and the crucified Lord . . . has come to bring peace and justice to the dispossessed of the land. That is why the slave wanted to ‘go tell it on de mountain.’”

William Farley Smith (1941-1997), who provided arrangements for most of the spirituals in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), adapts Work’s arrangements and, according to Dr. Carlton Young, “tastefully embellishes the chorus and the end of the verses with the blue note, chromatic turns, and the turn-of-the-century male quartet textures and voice leadings. It improves but does not abandon [Hugh] Porter’s European setting.”

Other versions of this spiritual have been adapted to fit specific situations. For example, during the Civil Rights movement, the following was sung in Alabama:

I wouldn’t be Governor Wallace,
I’ll tell you the reason why,
I’d be afraid He might call me
And I wouldn’t be ready to die.

The spiritual has inspired works in other media. Author James Baldwin’s (1924-1987) first major work and semi-autobiographical novel was titled Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). The novel discusses the role of the paradoxical church as experienced by African Americans, both as the incubator for repression and hypocrisy and as a foundation for hope, identity, and community. The ABC network produced a movie using this title in 1984.

Regardless of which version that is sung, “Go, tell it on the mountain” has become a truly American contribution to the telling of the Christmas story that is now sung around the world.

*Given oral tradition, the wording of African American spirituals varies from version to version and, given the dialects of the spirituals in their original form, even the spelling of words. For example, many traditional African American sources use the spelling "shone" in the first stanza. The editors of The United Methodist Hymnal modernized this spelling to "shown." This is but a small example of the many changes that take place between a spiritual as sung in its original context and the printing of it in a hymnal.

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