Many of the hymns or carols we sing in the Christmas season come from a Western European or British Isles origin. This is natural because these are the areas of origin of most immigrants to America during the time our holiday traditions were being established. Some writers were immigrants or were descended from them. Other carols were brought from their home country and translated to English when necessary. One of our most joyous Christmas songs has a decidedly different origin.
From ancient Biblical times people have enslaved other people to suit their own desires or purposes. In some occasions it was due to indentured servanthood, where people were dedicated to working for others for a given period of time to pay a debt. On other occasions it was due to a conquering nation in a war taking advantage of those conquered. This was the cause of the slavery that the Jews endured in Egypt during the time of Moses. These two occasions were also the cause of slavery in Africa. Indentured servanthood existed, and conquered tribes were taken as servants by their conquering tribes. Beginning in the 7th century or so Arab Muslims and Europeans are believed to have participated in the practice of chattel slavery in Africa, where captured people were seen as property to be bought and sold. Africans captured as property were sold in Europe, and in China and the far east. It is believed that the Portuguese first brought African slaves across the Atlantic in ships to the Americas in the 1600’s. The first ship was supposedly intended for the Spanish inhabitants of the Caribbean and Central America. It only made it as far as a landing near the Jamestown colony, where the slaves were sold instead. Thus began the disgraceful history of slavery in North America.
When the United States became a country in 1776 slavery was an accepted practice. Some slaves were treated well, and many others very poorly. Regardless of their treatment they were seen as belongings without their own personal freedom. In the early 1800’s people began to question the morality of slavery. There was a movement within the country that wanted to declare that all people should be considered free, and not subject to ownership or servitude by others. They wanted this declared at a federal level to guarantee this right to all. Many southern states seceded from the union because they didn’t believe that the federal government should be deciding this, and that states should be able to decide this type of law themselves (calling this “states’ rights”). Hence the Civil War. As we know the Union won, and slavery was ended.
The experience of slaves in America draws a parallel in my mind to the slavery that the Israelites experienced in Egypt and Babylon. They were subjected to a hard, harsh life and looked ahead to the day when they would be free. The feelings of sorrow and despair buoyed by hope in God built the foundation for a very particular type of music that blossomed in the mid 1800’s– the spiritual. Nothing could stop them from worshiping God, and many did. Despite their enslaved status, poor living conditions, and uncertain earthly futures they maintained a strong faith in the God who would save their souls.
Spirituals were songs that were created and taught verbally, and passed to new generations. They weren’t written on fancy sheet music in universities, or practiced on pianos or organs in churches or well to do homes. John Wesley Work III, a musician and music professor at Fisk University, began collecting and documenting spirituals. He wrote them down, transcribed the music, and eventually recorded many of the songs with Fisk students. His 1907 collection, “Folk Songs of the American Negro” included one of our most jubilant Christmas songs– “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”
The verses of the song give an account of the events on the night of Jesus’ birth, and end with the acknowledgement that God will reward those who seek Him and eventually make them great in His sight. In between the verses is the chorus, which declares Christ’s coming boldly and with joy:
Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.
I struggled to locate a version of the song that I believed shared the original intent and feeling that was intended when the song was written. Many of the versions I watched were stylized performance versions that didn’t seem quite right. I finally found one that captured the exuberant spirit I think the song intended. There are a LOT of people singing in this video and they seem genuinely excited. Please step outside your musical comfort zone as I did and feel the joy!
Take heart and be encouraged!