Friday, December 25, 2020

Go Tell It On the Mountain—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

Go Tell it on the Mountain--vintage recording by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.

Of all of the announcement carols Go Tell It On the Mountain is unusual for a number of reasons.  It is not European but rooted in the American Black Community and dated to the era when the end of slavery was being celebrated.  It is not an announcement by the Heavenly Hosts, but an instruction to a whole people to spread the good word.  And because of its connections to the Civil Rights Movement it doubles as a Christmas Carol and a liberation anthem.

It has been dated to 1865 and may reflect the widely celebrated moment when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery went into effect or even earlier to the Watch Night celebrations on New Year’s Eve 1863 when Lincoln’s war-time Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Watch Night when African-Americans gathered on New Year's Eve to greet the news of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Many Black churches continue to hold Watch Night services where Go Tell It On the Mountain is commonly sung.

Like earlier liberation spirituals from the slavery era it couched liberation in Biblical analogy.  The song spread through ante-bellum Black Churches and was widely popularized the Fisk University Jubilee Singers who toured widely from the 1870’s.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, seen here in 1881, helped spread Go Tell It On the Mountain.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s activist/singer Fannie Lou Hamer and perhaps others borrowed the line to “Let my people go!” from the older spiritual Go Down Moses to substitute from the original line “That Jesus Christ is Born!”  Drawing on that inspiration Peter, Paul and Mary, who had been active themselves in Southern Civil Rights protests, recorded the song with the Exodus references in 1963 and it became a mid-level singles hit for them in 1964.

Civil Rights dynamo and song leader Fannie Lou Hamer may have been the first, or one of the first, to change he lyrics  to "Let My People Go!"

Today Go Tell It On the Mountain is widely sung as Christmas Carol in both Black and White churches and has been often recorded on holiday albums.  It is particularly popular with county music artists including Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and even Toby Keith.  On the other hand the “Let My People” go versions remain popular with Black performers.  People who first hear one or the other are sometimes surprised or shocked to discover the different use.  In many Black churches, however, both versions are combined, especially on Watch Night.

The Jubilee singers at the Kennedy Center in 1971.

Today we will hear the song from a vintage recording of the Fisk Jubilee singers

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