American spiritual songs are difficult to date because they were passed down orally without publishing or recording. Such was the case with the Christmas song Go,Tell It On the Mountain. It became a Christmas classic because of the efforts of John Wesley Work.
John Wesley Work was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied Latin and history at Fisk University, but his great passion was music. In 1872, he was asked to lead the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a ten member touring vocal ensemble commissioned to save the University. In a bold move, the ensemble was sent on an eighteen month tour and was given the entire University treasury for travel expenses.
Go, Tell It On The Mountain and other spirituals were a regular part of the student singing at Fisk University, but were not part of the original repertoire of the ensemble. This is understandable because the songs were associated with slavery and represented recent history many of them wanted to forget. However, the school’s treasurer encouraged them to expose the world to the rich history of spirituals in this tour. The response was overwhelming and by the time they reached New York in December of that year, their concerts consisted primarily of choral arrangements of spirituals.
Over the course of their 18 month tour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers grew to a full choral ensemble. Led by John Wesley Work, they performed a host of spirituals to both white and black audiences across the United States and Europe, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria. This phenomenal tour resulted in both the school and the musical style earning an international reputation. Fisk University was saved financially and Go, Tell It On the Mountain was on its way to becoming a Christmas staple.