Scripture Reading: Isaiah 12:5-6, Isaiah 18:3, Isaiah 42:10-12, Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 2:8-20
John Wesley Work, Jr. was a Nashville man, through and through.
He attended Fisk University where his father taught, and he majored in history and Latin. He stayed on there as a professor, eventually becoming chair of his department and then president of a nearby university. Once the man put himself on a path, he didn’t budge.
Teaching paid the bills, but John’s joyful pursuit was discovering and preserving African American spiritual music. He led the Fisk Jubilee Singers for six years, touring at home and abroad. The Nashville boy got to see the world and share the art of the African American spiritual along the way. In a time when few black men were afforded the luxury of travel, John Jr. performed for Queen Victoria.
It took three generations of Works men over 70 years of field research, transcription, and publishing to put together a wide collection of African American spirituals which otherwise could have been lost to history. It was in this collection that John Jr. became the first to publish the hymn “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
This hymn, like other spirituals of the era, had previously been communicated through singing only. Putting the tune and lyrics down on paper was a way John could give voice to the unknown slave who had composed the song many years before—who, despite his earthly enslavement, sang out with victorious hope.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” celebrates the good news of the God who makes Himself known to His people, right where they are.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Adapted by John W. Work
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 angel chorus
that hailed our Savior‘s birth.
Down in a lowly stable
the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation
that blessed Christmas morn.
Hustad, Donald P., and George H. Shorney. Dictionary-handbook to hymns for the living Church. The history of Hope Publishing Company and its divisions and affiliates / George H. Shorney. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publ. Co., 1978.
Work, John Wesley, The Folk Songs of the American Negro. 1931.