The Songs of Christmas…Go Tell it On the Mountain


This is part 7 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

This Christmas carol is different from the ones we have talked about so far. It is different because no one knows who wrote either the lyrics or the music. The truth is, we are fortunate to have this and many other Negro spirituals from the slavery era. Who knows how many old spirituals were lost.

The problem with many of these old spirituals is, they were not written down for some time following freedom for the African-American slaves through the mid-19th century. There was a simple explanation. The overwhelming majority of slaves didn’t know how to read or write. The spirituals were passed from generation to generation through oral tradition. “Go Tell it on the Mountain” is not an exception.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to John Wesley Work, an African-American choir director in Nashville, Tennessee. Work was a rarity for his time. He was an educated black man in the south. Work took a great interest in the experience of blacks during and after the slavery period. He thought that a new generation might learn the importance of spirituality by learning the music of their ancestors.

Work taught at Fisk College. The school was best known for its chorus, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. During a time of history where many people, particularly many blacks were unable to travel far and generally stayed close to the place of their birth, the Fisk Jubilee Singers not only traveled the country, they traveled the world singing before Queen Victoria and President Chester A. Arthur.

Work instilled the same love of music and history in his son that was within him. John Wesley Work II was a folk singer and composer. He also collected old Negro spirituals. Later he became professor of history and Latin at Fisk. His wife was the teacher for the Jubilee Singers. Both he and his brother Frederick kept their father’s work alive.

The two brothers did not want to change the words or the feelings for “Go Tell it on the Mountain but they did a choral arrangement of the piece. In 1880 the Fisk Jubilee Singers took the song to the world.

In 1909 “Go Tell it on the Mountain” Thomas P. Fenner published the spiritual carol. He included it in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations.

The Work family was far from finished with this hymn and others of the African-American tradition. John Wesley Work III, a graduate of Julliard, loved history and music and carried on the work of his father and grandfather. He traveled hundreds of miles to interview aging former slaves to learn more of the tradition. It is because of the work of this family that this important piece of music history is still alive. The youngest Work included a new verse. It is unclear whether he wrote these words or he found them in his research.

The spiritual, as we know it, was first published in American Negro Songs and Spirituals in 1940. Since that time the spiritual has grown in popularity. Today it is sung not just in the United States but all over the world.

Faith and dedication made it possible for us to know this hymn and many others (though there are few others about Christmas). May we be as passionate for the callings God has for us as the Work family has shown for their divine task.

Have a blessed day in the Lord

Joy and Peace,

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

Silent Night: The Stories of 40 Beloved Christmas Carols, Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2013.

Published by drjkbroyles

I love Mike Ashcraft's book, "My One Word." For the past nine years I have participated and encouraged others to participate to in the "My One Word" Challenge. My first word was discipline was my word the first year. Since then my word has been focus, sight, jungle, peace, concentration, serve, genuine and this year is fit. I seek to be fit for my health, my family, my church, my ministries. I seek to be fit in any are of my life where God might point to me. I also have a nickname, "Dr. B." When I was a public high school teacher, Dr. B. is what most of my students called me, at least in my presence. I am still called that by many people though I no longer teach in public schools. I am the author of "Average Joe: With an Extraordinary Story" (available on Amazon). The book fits into the genre of "Biblical Fiction" or "Christian Fiction" and features some of the Bible's lesser known characters. The name of my blog is, "Fork in the Road." Life is filled with forks in the road. It isn't a matter of if we encounter a fork in the road, but when will we and how many will we experience in a lifetime. I love to strum my guitar. I am not a great guitar player but I enjoy it. I also enjoy writing music. I get excited with I feel a new song emerging. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog, "Bishop" in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 30 years as a United Methodist pastor, serving churches all over east and southeast Texas, from just north of Tyler to south of Houston, from the Gulf Coast to east of Madisonville. I currently serve Perritte Memorial UMC in Nacogdoches. I spent one year in the classroom, teaching High School government, economics, psychology, and sociology. Cindy and I have been married for 43 years. We have two grown sons and six grandchildren, three boys and three girls. I enjoy preaching and all it's aspects from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading. I have dabble in drawing and "painting" with pastels as well as woodworking and woodcarving. My current projects are two ukuleles. I collect, repair and restore guitars too. I play the guitar (badly, but I still do) I also enjoy working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, TX, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. This blog started out as devotional writings. In August of 2020, I made a major change to the blog, switching to a daily theme format. Sunday Sermon-usually my manuscript sermon Miscellaneous Monday-misc. writing, poetry, ministry Tuesday Thoughts-Devotion Wed. with Wesleys-hist. & theol. of early Methodists TED Talk Thursday-Video & appl. in current theology Five for Friday-5 things I've seen & my thoughts Sing-Along Sat. - Usually a new song I have written I write, "Strumming a G-Chord with Dr.B." to get my thoughts onto something permanent. After all, they say, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. Seeking the Genuine, Keith Lufkin, Texas August 2020

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