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"Go Tell It on the Mountain" is not only a beloved Christmas carol. It is also one of the most powerful calls to evangelize. Even as the world and personal events seem to ramp up in discord and madness, the powerful song charges us with the missive to proclaim the good news "over the hills and everywhere."
The song recalls Luke's Gospel; an angel appears in the dark of night to report earth-shaking news. The angel tells shepherds keeping a night watch over their sheep: "Do not be afraid. For behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
The angel then directs them to find in nearby Bethlehem a newborn "infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." The shepherds "find Mary and Joseph and Jesus in the manger," and they, in turn, spread "the message that had been told them about this child."
These shepherds, along with the angel, are the first to spread the good news of Christ. Built into Luke's Gospel is the charge given to all of us: "Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere ... that Jesus Christ is born."
The good news of the birth of a Savior resonated deeply with slaves on the plantations of the American South. Indeed, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is attributed to the oral tradition of Southern slaves as they sought to keep body and soul alive through suffering and captivity.
Christian musicologist John Wesley Work, Jr. (1871–1925), the first black collector of black folk songs, is credited with documenting the hymn and saving it for posterity.
The earliest version of the song appeared in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro, as Sung on the Plantations (1909) with the heading "Christmas Plantation Song." It included these stanzas written in the original dialect:
When I was a seeker,
I sought both night and day.
I ask de Lord to help me,
An' He show me de way.
He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall,
An' if I am a Christian
I am the least of all.
Go tell it on de mountain,
Over de hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on de mountain,
Dat Jesus Christ is born.
This version recalls the anxious question of the prophet Isaiah, revealing the deep longing for the savior: "Watchman, how much longer the night? Watchman, how much longer the night?"
The song has been performed by a diverse array of singers throughout the decades. Among the first were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a 10-member choir group in the late 19th century who brought the song to national and international attention, even performing for Queen Victoria.
Today, there are thousands of renditions available, among them those of Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Odetta, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra and even Bob Marley — as well as gospel choirs in churches throughout the nation.
The good news that the angel announced to the shepherds over 2,000 years ago has come to us once again this Christmas season. It has been passed from Christian to Christian down through the centuries and across the world's expanses to us at this very moment. Just as the angel directed the shepherds to share the message of the newborn baby, we are commanded to do the same — on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere.
As we sing — trembling, perhaps, due to the precarious state of our world — we can still be confident and stalwart, as were the slaves on the Southern plantations, as we sing and proclaim the only enduring good news in the world.