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HYMN 271 Go Tell it On the Mountain/Little Drummer Boy

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Text: African American Spiritual, John Wesley Work (1872-1925) Tune: Spiritual

Angel appearing to the Shepherds Henry Ossawa Taylor 1910

R/Go tell it on the mountain Over the hills and everywhere, Go tell it on the mountain, That Jesus Christ was born!

1. While shepherds kept their watching O’er silent flocks by night, Behold throughout the heavens There shone a holy light. R/

2. The shepherds feared and trembled When lo! above the earth Rang out the angel chorus That hailed our Savior’s birth. R/

3. Down in a lowly manger The humble Christ was born, And God sent us salvation That blessed Christmas morn. R/

Jubilee Quartette 1909-1910 John Wesley Work II to far left

MEDITATION John Wesley Work, Jr. is one of the heroes of the African American music scene. Born in Nashville, where his father was a choir director, he learned music from him. Work attended Fisk University, majoring in Music. He sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers during his college years and studied Classics at Harvard. During the 1890s he began collecting the folk music and spirituals of the African American tradition. In 1898 he returned to Fisk where he taught Latin, Greek and History for the next twenty some years. In 1909, he led the Jubilee Quartette on its tour, introducing audiences to the music he had discovered and arranged. In 1901 he began publishing his findings.

It is said that he organized the singers to go around the campus early on Christmas morning singing this hymn. As I have written elsewhere, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have a special place in the history of American music—they brought the rich collection of spirituals to northern audiences and many around the world with their spirited singing. In doing so they had to suffer the racism of the day wherever they went—from Queen Victoria’s palace to concert venues everywhere. Soon, their music became a part of the American songbook--and changed it. If you listen to many of the settings of old hymns and choral anthems now, they are often set to rhythms and harmonies from the spirituals.

When I taught Hymnody at Luther Seminary, and got to this material, it was clear how African Americans, from the time of slavery through today—took the songs of the white church and made them their own, from Dr. Watts, as they called him, to the American Gospel song and their own songs in the vigorous bursting forth of Gospel in the late 60s and on. In return the European and American traditions took in the African American beat and harmonies for their own music. You can hear it on the selections from YouTube—every tradition has been changed.

That is what happens to living traditions. They change based on what is in the environment. The Gospel is universal, for all. Every one who hears the Christmas story and believes it will adapt it to their context and culture. Work wanted the mission emphasis of the carol not to be missed. We are to take the story of Jesus, which was first announced to the shepherds in Bethlehem, to every race and nation, every mountain, valley, everywhere. It is such an easy story to tell: the birth of a baby in a manger. It is immediately available to everyone, especially the little children who get it right away when they see the manger scene. The two year old in my house pointed immediately to the baby in the manger when I showed her my manger set and said, Baby Jesus. We are to tell the story everywhere, because it brings life wherever it goes. We can see that in the dancing eyes of the young as they hear it, especially right now.

HYMN INFO Work and his wife and brother began gathering these materials before the turn of the last century. In 1901 they published their first book, New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901). "Go Tell it on the Mountain" appeared in his second collection, New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907). Work had heard the original, which we do not know anymore, and made it into the current version. It is now a staple Christmas carol in most hymnals. There are versions for Easter, and some that do not tell the Christmas story, but use the story of the Exodus. Work's life story has a somewhat sad ending. He was forced to leave Fisk because a prejudice against black folk music had developed and his scholarship was not appreciated. He became president of Roger William University in Nashville where he served for two years until his death.

LINKS Mahalia Jackson/ she adds other stanzas

Alfred street Baptist congregation and choir

Mormon Tabernacle Organist riffing on the music, wild

Dolly Parton with an African American choir


Text and Tune: Katherine Kennicott Davis (June 25, 1892 – April 20, 1980)

Katherine Kennicott Davis

This is a fun story about almost every little kids’ favorite carol. The lyrics are extremely simple, they tell a sweet story in a very few words, with the drummer drumming as his gift to Mary and the baby Jesus. Its charm is in its repetition and the brief story. Everyone from Bing Crosby forward has sung it to great acclaim.

Davis, born in Missouri, began writing music as a teenager. She enrolled at Wellesly College in Massachusetts where she studied music. Later she began teaching there while getting a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. One of her teachers was the consequential Nadia Boulanger in Paris, with whom nearly every composer of her day studied. She wrote cantatas, operettas, works for piano, vocal solos, and hundreds of choral pieces that became part of the repertoire of choirs around the world. She wrote this piece in the 1940s and it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers. After that it became a huge hit. The list of famous groups and soloists who recorded it takes up pages on Wikipedia. When she died she left her library and royalties to the Wellesley College Music Department.

LINKS Leslie Odom, Jr.

Snare drum performance

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