Wednesday, December 23, 2020
John Wesley Work, Sr., who had been born into slavery in Kentucky, was a church choir director in Nashville, Tennessee. He had choir members who were part of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University. He, his sons, and daughter-in-law are credited as being the first family of collectors, compilers and arrangers of the African American Spiritual. Spirituals, being in the ‘oral tradition’ were handed down from generation to generation. Work’s son, John Wesley Work ll, was a tenor in the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and is credited with compiling “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” He was a professor of Latin, Greek and History at Fisk, but his first love was music. He directed the Jubilee Singers for twenty years until he left to become the president of Roger Williams University.
He and his brother Frederick, complied and arranged two volumes of Negro Spirituals, one of which contained “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” It is crucial to note that this spiritual and others were sung, arranged and harmonized in the ‘oral tradition’ long before they appeared in print.
Work’s grandson, also a musician, John Wesley Work, lll often spoke about the tradition of students gathering before dawn and singing the spiritual, “Go tell it on the mountain” at each building on the Fisk campus every Christmas.
Fisk University which was founded as The Fisk Free Colored School in 1866, was one of a few schools that educated freed slaves after the Civil War. After five years, the treasurer of Fisk set out to raise money for the university which was facing bankruptcy. The singers, two quartets and an accompanist used all of the remaining money in the university’s budget for travel expenses for an extended eighteen-month tour of Europe and America.
At first, the African-American singers hesitated to share the sacred spirituals of their parents and grandparents, but eventually the Jubilee concerts consisted mostly of spirituals and was heard by white and black audiences in Europe and America. This tour, even with its hardships, earned the university and the genre, the ‘spiritual,’ international notoriety.
One of the pieces which was always sung in each and every concert was ‘Go, tell it on the mountain.’ This piece has served not only to inspire films, books and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but also me in this year as we are a nation wrestling with our own racial history.