Of all 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.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.
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.The Fisk Jubilee Singers, seen here in 1881, helped spread Go Tell It On the Mountain.
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 by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers who toured widely from the 1870’s.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!"
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
Down Moses to substitute from the original line “That Jesus Christ is
Born!” Drawing on that inspiration Peter, Paul & 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 single hit for
them in 1964.
Go Tell It On the Mountain is widely
sung as a 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.
we will hear the song from a vintage
recording of the Fisk Jubilee singers