Go tell it on the mountain,
over the hills, and ev'rywhere;
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 manger
the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation
that blessed Christmas morn. [Refrain]
Source: Christian Worship: Hymnal #361
|First Line:||While shepherds kept their watching|
|Title:||Go, Tell It on the Mountain|
|Adapter:||John W. Work|
|Refrain First Line:||Go, tell it on the mountain|
|Liturgical Use:||Closing Songs|
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 copyrighted 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.
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
Note: The book American Negro Songs and Spirituals: A Comprehensive Collection of 230 Folk Songs, Religious and Secular, with a forward by John W. Work (1940), states that "These verses were supplied by John Work Sr. in place of the original ones which could not be found." (p. 215).
In the Bible, the mountain often represents the holy presence of God. Moses has to go up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and to see the Promised Land. In the Gospel, Jesus is transfigured on a mountain, an event signifying the full embodiment of the divine nature and holiness of Christ. In the Old Testament especially, the mountain is also a place that is set apart – not just everyone can go up the mountain to be in God’s presence. Psalm 24:3 asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?” God’s presence came down to the mountain, and the mountain was the barrier between the Israelites and God’s presence, much like the curtain in the temple dividing the people from the Holy of Holies.
When Christ was born however, God’s presence came down to His people in a new form, in the helplessness of a baby. And the story doesn't end there - Christmas points us to Easter, when Christ ripped the curtain in the temple and became the bridge between us and the Father, God’s holy presence in and among us. When Christ was transfigured, he had with him Peter, James and John. The glory of the LORD was no longer barred from His people. The mountain is no longer a barrier between us and God, but a place to shout the good news of God’s presence among his people in the incarnation of Christ Jesus, to “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”
No one is entirely sure who actually wrote the words of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” - the verses we sing today were likely written by John W. Work to replace verses that got lost from the original, but some also attribute the text to his brother, Frederick J. Work. Once it first started to appear in song books, however, not much has changed about the text or the tune. Hymnals and most church settings keep the text much the same, with three stanzas and a chorus. The one slight text change that varies from hymnal to hymnal is the use of the word “stable” or “manger” in the third stanza. Some performance artists have taken liberties with the text to make it more their own, such as Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, who changed the words to include Exodus and Civil Rights language to show their support for the Civil Rights Movement.
The only tune used is GO TELL IT, also attributed to John Wesley Work, but adapted from an African-American spiritual that dates back to at least 1865. There are a number of different styles this hymn could be arranged to. One of the most common is gospel, particularly with a choir supporting a soloist. The challenge with a gospel flavored version is keeping it accessible for the congregation to sing along. Jeanine Noyes offers a fun, catch version with a fairly accessible gospel feel. If your church has a soloist, he or she can improvise while the congregation repeats the chorus.
Another popular style for this hymn is bluegrass. This works particularly well for a praise band with a mandolin or banjo player, but acoustic guitar works as well. Needtobreathe, a Christian folk-rock band, has a particularly good version of the hymn that includes a bridge: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, Jesus Christ is born. Hallelujah, hallelujah, the Savior of the World.”
This hymn is most often used at the end of Christmas Day services – now that the congregation has been told the story of Christ’s birth, they are invited and encouraged to go out from there to tell that story. It could also be used during Epiphany to remind us that now that Christ has been revealed to us, we must also make him known among the nations. The refrain of the hymn references many passages in Isaiah that echo the call to proclaim good news from the mountain.
Laura de Jong, Hymnary.org