“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is a well-loved carol that dates back to the oral traditions of slaves in the American South. Its preservation in published form, leading eventually to its appearance on Choir of the Sound’s 2015 Holiday Show program, is owed to the Work family of Nashville, Tennessee.
John Wesley Work, Jr. was born in the early 1870s, about the same time that the Jubilee Singers were founded at nearby Fisk College. Some of the church members who sang for his choir director father were founding members, and John Wesley Work, Sr. directed the group for a time. John Jr. attended Fisk, and eventually returned to his alma mater as a professor of Latin and history. With his wife, Agnes, and his brother Frederick Jerome Work, he began collecting slave songs and spirituals, which he published as New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901) and New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907). It was this second book that contained “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” His reputation as the first African American collector of folk songs and spirituals was made.
Some sources credit Work with composing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” but it is more likely that he transcribed and arranged an existing traditional song. The carol contains characteristic elements of songs passed along by oral tradition: The simple, repeated lines of the chorus are easy to pick up and remember, and lend themselves to the call-and-response style common among slaves, the type of music Work was attempting to document and preserve. In 1909, the song also appeared in a book titled Religious Songs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantation, by Thomas P. Fenner, which appears to confirm its origin.
For nearly 20 years, John Wesley Work, Jr. was the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He published scholarly articles on African-American music and folklore, and with Frederick founded a music publishing company. His son, John Wesley Work III, continued the family traditions: He became the third man of that name to lead the Jubilee Singers, and continued to collect the traditions and music of African Americans. On one notable collecting trip in the early 1940s he recorded a then-unknown blues artist who went by the name of Muddy Waters. Outside of musicology circles, he is perhaps best known for composing “My Lord, What a Morning.”
This remarkable family has greatly enriched American culture, through musical education, the preservation and dissemination of spirituals and folk songs, and the arrangement and composition of choral works that have become standards. The history of the Works truly deserves to be shouted from the mountain tops!