356. Go, Tell It on the Mountain

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

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

2 The shepherds feared and trembled
when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus
that hailed our Savior's birth. Refrain

3 Down in a lowly stable
the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation
that bless-ed Christmas morn. Refrain

Text Information
First Line: While shepherds kept their watching
Title: Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Publication Date: 1987
Meter: 76 76 with refrain
Topic: Songs for Children: Hymns; Christmas; Missions (1 more...)
Source: Afro-American spiritual, 19th cent.
Language: English
Refrain First Line: Go, tell it on the mountain
Tune Information
Arranger: Hale Smith (1977, alt.)
Meter: 76 76 with refrain
Key: F Major
Source: Afro-American spiritual, 19th cent.
Copyright: Arrangement from Hymns III © 1978, The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

Text Information:

Scripture References:
all st. = Luke 2:8-20
ref. = Matt. 28:19

The text of this beloved spiritual was first published in Folk Song of the American Negro (1907), a study of African American folk music by John Wesley Work, Jr. (PHH 476). The song may date back to earlier sources, but evidently the original text was lost. According to Edith McFall Work, widow of John Wesley Work, III:

the verses of these songs were published by John Work, II, in place of the original ones which could not be found. In 1940 John Work, III, had the songs copyright¬ed and published [at 215] in his book American Negro Songs.”
-Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, p. 360

In American Negro Songs and Spiritual (1940), John Wesley Work, III, attributes the newer text to his uncle Frederick J. Work. "He may have composed it" [the tune], wrote J. W. Work, III. "I know he composed the verses." John, III, recalled that when he was a child, the students at Fisk University began singing this before daybreak on Christmas morning, going from building to building. Later, his arrangement for use in choral concerts by the Fisk Jubilee Singers helped to popularize the spiritual.

The refrain theme comes from Old Testament passages in which praise to God for his acts of deliverance was often shouted, both literally and metaphorically, from the mountaintops (Isa. 42:11). While the three stanzas tell the essence of the Christmas story, the refrain underscores the missionary impetus of the Christian church: "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). The "go, tell," which initially applied to the singers caroling on the university campus, is a signal for us to leave the comfortable confines of Christian worship and "go, tell" the message of Christ's redemption to the whole world.

Because of the spiritual's oral tradition, variants in text and melody exist. A textual variant for "Go, Tell It" is an Easter version with the following refrain text:

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus lives again.

Liturgical Use:
Christmas morning; a Christmas candlelight service; "carols from many lands" service; the refrain could be used by itself as a chorus on Christmas Day, or it could be combined with the Easter refrain version (see above) and used during worship services that focus on missions.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook

Tune Information:

Some scholars have discovered similarities between GO TELL IT and white folk songs from the Civil War era. The setting by Hale Smith (b. Cleveland, OH, 1925) was published in Hymns III (1978), an American Episcopal supplementary hymnal. Smith attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he received a M.Mus. degree in composition. He moved to New York City in 1958 and worked as an editor for several music publishing companies. During that time he also arranged music for several famous jazz performers and composed music for radio, films, and television. In 1968 he began teaching at the C. W. Post College of Long Island University, New York, and in 1970 began teaching music at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Smith's setting features a gospel style in the refrain and a common melodic version of the tune (your congregation may involuntarily sing another variant). Try having a soloist, a small group, or a choir (with a different harmonization) sing the stanzas and the congregation sing the refrain. Piano is the most appropriate accompaniment for this African American gospel style.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook

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