Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And God Sent Us Salvation (Day Five)

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.

The shepherds feared and trembled,
When lo! above the earth,
Rang out the angels' chorus
That hailed the Savior's birth.

Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born;
And God sent us salvation
That bless├Ęd Christmas morn.

John W. Work Jr., 1907
Tune: GO TELL IT ( with refrain)
African-American spiritual, 19th c.

John Wesley Work Jr. became interested in spirituals as a student at Fisk University in Nashville, where he studied voice in addition to more "serious" subjects such as history and Latin. Fisk was the home of the Jubilee Singers, a traveling choral group who introduced spirituals, or "slave songs," as they were also known then, to a wider audience beginning in 1871.

Work later became an instructor at Fisk like his father, and became chair of the history department in 1906. With his brother Frederick, he worked at gathering and harmonizing spirituals from the oral tradition. One of his early collections, Folk Song of the American Negro, was first published in 1907 and contained this Christmas favorite. Work wrote the text to go with a spiritual tune. The stanzas of its earlier text, not Christmas-related, were:

When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day
I asked the Lord to help me'
And he showed me the way.

He made me a watchman
Upon a city wall
And if I am a Christian
I am the least of all.

Much later, in 1963, another text was written for the tune for the pop group Peter, Paul, and Mary, incorporating themes from the Book of Exodus and geared to the civil rights movement. The group recorded it with some success, and it was also adopted by the activist Fannie Lou Hamer.


AuntE said...

I am enjoying your posts on lesser known carols! Thank you.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks AuntE -- we're only halfway through but I promise not everything coming up will be unknown.

It's been interesting looking for these things that someone somewhere was moved to create for their Christmas celebration and someone else thought worthy of publishing, even though they are mostly lost to us today.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

At the Cutters and Friends' Christmas Concert a few weeks ago, we were treated to a rousing, sing-along-able rendition of "Go, Tell It on the Mountain" that included all five verses.

But there's nothing obscure or lesser known about this song, at least in its Christmas verses, as far as I can tell. It's surely the best known and most widely sung Christmas song from the American (black or white) Spiritual traditions, don't you think? I would guess "Rise up, shepherd" and "I wonder as I wander" would be the runners up.


C.W.S. said...

No, not unknown at all -- as promised on Christmas Day, there would be some familiar things interspersed among the discarded ones. Though not as many as I had thought -- I'm having fun with the obscurities. But everyone will know Saturday's and Sunday's selections coming up.

AuntE said...

Wasn't "I wonder as I wander" from Appalachia - collected by J.J. Niles?

Leland Bryant Ross said...

Yes, Niles published "I wonder as I wander"; I've seen some speculation as to whether he collected it (as he said) or created it (he had a bit of a reputation as a concocter of filk (fictitious folk)).