John Wesley Work, Jr. is said to have been the first black collector of Negro folksongs, and was most likely born on August 6, 1871 in Nashville, Tennessee. His father, John Wesley Work, was a church choir director in Nashville, where he wrote and arranged music for his choirs. Some of his choristers were members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.
He attended Fisk University in Nashville where he studied Latin and history. Singing in the Mozart society while at school sparked an interest in Negro spirituals in Work. Following graduation, Work went on to teach for a year, studying for one year at Harvard University, and a year as a library assistant at Fisk University. In 1898, he received a Master’s degree from Fisk and took an appointment as a Latin and Greek instructor.
While teaching, Work became a leader in the movement to preserve, study, and perform Negro spirituals. He organized Fisk singing groups about 1889. With the help of his brother, Frederick Jerome Work ,John Wesley Work, Jr., collected, harmonized, and published a number of collections of slave songs and spirituals. The first of these collections was New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, in 1901.
Among the other solo songs he published, the spiritual, “Go, Tell It on The Mountain” was issued in 1907. In all likelihood, the song was sung by slaves decades prior to its publication by Work. In 1915, Work published “Folk Song of the American Negro.” John Wesley Work, Jr. died on September 7, 1925.
While Work did not create the song, we can thank him for preserving the song and publicizing it in a way that we can enjoy today, over 150 years after he put it in his publication.
Go tell it on the mountain” is sung by people of all ages, from the adorable preschoolers to adult choirs. When sung, people are smiling and moving with the song’s telling of the story of our King who came down from heaven and who was humbled by human flesh, all for our salvation.
“Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn”
The gospel of Luke mentions Zechariah’s burst into praise when his speech is restored.
“He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.” … “His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:”
Luke 1:63-64, 67 NIV
With his previous lack of faith now overflowing with proof, he could not keep from shouting praise to God for who He was. Some call the text of Scripture referenced in this song, “Zechariah’s Song.” You can read it in Luke 1 beginning with verse 67.
Indeed, the power of Christ’s birth on earth is soul bending. When we allow our minds to sink into the scene, to imagine what wonder each person had as they viewed the Babe in the manger, to hear the words of the angel and to listen to the heavenly choir extol the glory of this One who was born. If we contemplate the event we celebrate at Christmas, we cannot help but feel like shouting our praises for Him.
Here is The CenturyMen singing “Rise Up, Shepherd/ Go Tell It on The Mountain” (arr. Joseph Joubert & Buryl Red) on their album Beautiful Star.
May we each follow the example that the shepherds gave to us over 2,000 years ago. They arose from their flock and went to Bethlehem to see what God had done there, and when they arrived at the manger, they saw the Babe who came to save them, and us, from our sins. With such a marvelous gift of salvation, our spirit sings and we are compelled to tell others of the great grace of our marvelous God and Savior.
Beloved, go tell the good news to those around you, and shout it from the mountain top!
Father, I praise You for the gift of your Son as a Babe in a manger so long ago. May I trust that Babe and cling to the cross upon which He was crucified as I seek forgiveness of my sins through His abundant love, mercy and grace. Then, may I live my life as a witness to that great love so others can see Christ in me.