Go, tell it on the mountain

The first known appearance of this spiritual in any form was in the Hampton Institute collection Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (1909 | Fig. 1). In this printing, the spiritual had two verses in unison (except the last measure) and a chorus in harmony. Like many spirituals, the melody is mostly pentatonic, and the harmony is mostly tonic and dominant.


Fig. 1. Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1909).


Unfortunately, the circumstances behind the song are unclear. This collection was “arranged by the musical directors of The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute” (Hampton University, Virginia). Regarding the newer songs in the 1909 edition, the preface states, “To this edition are being added some twenty-five new ones for the use of which we wish to acknowledge the courtesy of Professor F. J. Work of Fisk University, Mrs. Jennie C. Lee of Tuskegee Institute, the Calhoun Colored School, and the Penn School.” The index of the 1909 and 1916 printings denotes six songs which had been borrowed from Fisk; the 1920 printing of the same collection marks ten as being from Fisk, ten from Calhoun. On the individual song pages, the songs credited to Tuskegee are on pages 100 to 104. Songs credited to Fisk are on pages 94 to 98. The songs from Calhoun and Penn are not marked. “Go, tell it on the mountain” was not marked as being borrowed, either on the page or in the index, so the proper origin of the song is impossible to discern.

“Go, tell it on the mountain” was printed Hampton’s journal, The Southern Workman, vol. 50, no. 12 (December 1921 | Fig. 2), in a slightly different form, with some minor textual changes in the second verse and an additional third verse. Like the 1909 printing, this does not include any additional source information.


Fig. 2. The Southern Workman, vol. 50, no. 12 (December 1921).


The spiritual was included in R. Nathaniel Dett’s edition of Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1927). In the Appendix, he explained why some of his arrangements were different: “A comparison of this edition with almost any of the previous ones will show that the way many of the Negro folk-songs are sung at present is quite different from that recorded nearly a half-century ago.” To a degree, he lamented how “the young Negro student of today is not quite the slave of yesterday,” with a host of modern influences and opportunities, including the phonograph and the radio, which “makes one hesitate to accept present-day arrangements as authentic, even though done by natives.” This newer version of “Go, tell it on the mountain” included changes both in melody and harmony (Fig. 3). It also showed how the earlier printing of 1909 was not merely academic, plugged into the collection from elsewhere; it was actively sung on campus. Dett’s version has not been widely adopted.


Fig. 3. Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1927).


The song also has a history at Fisk University, although its presence there is more ambiguous. In 1976, hymnologist William Reynolds (1920–2009) described how he had been friends with Fisk professor John Work III (1901–1967), who knew the spiritual as a child:

This writer had the privilege of knowing the enriching friendship of John W. Work III for the last ten years of Work’s life. Dr. Work took pleasure in recalling his early days as a child on the campus of Fisk University where his father was a teacher. Very early on Christmas morning, long before sunrise, it was then the custom for students to gather and walk together from building to building, singing “Go, tell it on the mountain, Jesus Christ is born.”[1]

In spite of the song’s reported favor on campus, it did not appear in a Fisk collection until it was included in American Negro Songs and Spirituals (NY: Bonanza Books, 1940 | Fig. 4), edited by Work III, and in that case, the verses had been rewritten by John W. Work II (1872–1925) because the original ones “could not be found.” These three new verses are the ones typically printed in hymnals and song books.


Fig. 4. American Negro Songs and Spirituals (NY: Bonanza Books, 1940).


This spiritual is sometimes said to have been collected or even written by Fisk scholar Frederick Jerome Work (1878–1942), brother of John W. Work II, based primarily on Frederick’s extensive activity in transcribing and publishing three collections of spirituals from 1902 to 1907 and the presence of his name in the Hampton collection of 1909. Several issues limit the viability of this ascription: (1) This spiritual did not appear in any Fisk collections prior to 1940, (2) in the Hampton collection, the spirituals obtained from Fisk were marked two ways—individually and in the index—but “Go, tell it on the mountain” was not one of them, and (3) in the 1940 Fisk collection, the original verses “could not be found,” a strange problem to have if the song had originated and been sung at that school for over three decades. The stronger paper trail is at Hampton, although the 1909 collection seems to have been expanded primarily by borrowing songs from other sources.

Another possible scenario is that “Go, tell it on the mountain” was cross-pollinated at both schools from another source, such as the Penn School at St. Helena Island, which was credited but not marked in the 1909 collection. This spiritual did appear in Saint Helena Island Spirituals (NY: G. Schirmer, 1925), where it was credited to Hampton. This printing uses a variation of the third verse which had appeared in The Southern Workman in 1921.


Fig. 5. Saint Helena Island Spirituals (NY: G. Schirmer, 1925).


Given the available evidence, all signs point to Hampton being the origin point of the song, possibly “brought in by students from various parts of the South,” as was described in Hampton’s 1891 collection. And yet the version most often disseminated is the one published by Fisk in 1940, therefore giving both schools a claim to a perennial Christmas favorite.

for Hymnology Archive
24 December 2018


William Reynolds, “Go, tell it on the mountain,” Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), p. 71.

Related Resources:

George Pullen Jackson, “Go, tell it on the mountain,” White and Negro Spirituals (NY: J.J. Augustin, 1943), p. 215.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (NY: The Haworth Press, 1995), p. 111.

Clark Kimberling, “Three generations of Works and their contributions to congregational singing,” The Hymn, vol. 65, no. 3 (Summer 2014), pp. 10-17: HathiTrust

Carl P. Daw Jr. “Go, tell it on the mountain,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), p. 142-143.

“Go, tell it on the mountain,” Hymnary.org: