The Carol that Saved a College

Go tell it on the mountain,

over the hills and ev’rywhere;

go tell it on the mountain

that Jesus Christ is born!

 

1 While shepherds kept their watching

o’er silent flocks by night,

behold, throughout the heavens

there shone a holy light. [Refrain]

 

2 The shepherds feared and trembled

when, lo! above the earth

rang out the angel chorus

that hailed our Savior‘s birth. [Refrain]

 

3 Down in a lonely manger

the humble Christ was born;

and God sent us salvation

that blessed Christmas morn. [Refrain]

 

Everybody has favorite Christmas carols. This is one of mine- mostly because of how fun it is to sing! The refrain is bouncy and memorable enough for little voices to join cheerfully along in telling the good news “ev’rywhere” that Jesus Christ is born. It also tells the story almost straight out of Luke’s gospel, making it a great way for young and old alike to hear how Jesus was born.

Imagine my surprise, then, at learning that these verses are not the original words for this carol! They aren’t even close! I discovered this when singing carols with my family at Christmas one year. We made it all through the refrain together. When we got to the verses, my grandparents started singing completely different words.

When I was a seeker

I sought both night and day.

I ask de Lord to help me,

An’ He show me de way. [Refrain]

 

He made me a watchman

Upon the city wall,

An’ if I am a Christian

I am the least of all. [Refrain]

Now I was puzzled. How were there two such different carols for the same tune? Armed with curiosity and access to Google, I began my search. I learned that this sing began as a Spiritual, the style of songs that developed out of American slavery in the 19th century. Most Spirituals have a repeated refrain that can be easily learned and sung by a group, while the leader sings the verses. Because slavers often forbade the people they enslaved from learning to read or write, these songs were passed orally. The verses might change based on how one person remembered them, or on their inspiration to sing a new verse. This explained how my grandparents had learned a version totally different from the one I knew. Spirituals also often have a strong beat to keep a group of workers in rhythm with one another.

Go Tell it on the Mountain has an even greater claim to fame than being fun to sing or having verse variants- it helped save a college. Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded in 1866 as a college for newly-freed Black Americans in a time when other colleges wouldn’t accept non-white students. After only five years, Fisk University was struggling. Lacking wealthy donors and being unwilling to beggar students in exchange for an education, Fisk was nearing bankruptcy in 1871. With no other options, they took a leap of faith. A ten-member group formed the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They took every penny the university had for travel expenses and went out on an eighteen-month fundraising tour.

Though they didn’t start out singing Spirituals, they became the core of the group’s repertoire throughout the tour. Spirituals scholar Sandra Jean Graham writes, “The students were at first reluctant ambassadors for the songs of their ancestors. As [Jubilee] singer Ella Sheppard recalled, ‘The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then, too, they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship . . .” The Jubilee Singers were persuaded to include Spirituals, and they were met with international acclaim. By the end eighteen months, they had raised enough money to cancel all of Fisk University’s debts.

What does this have to do with Go Tell it on the Mountain? Well, it was one of those Spirituals that the Jubilee Singers shared with the world. In fact, we might say that the carol saved the college, but the Jubilee Singers saved the carol! Without their leap of faith to save the college, the world might never have heard and loved Spirituals like Go tell it on the Mountain.

God of mountains and hills, valleys and plains, thank you for the Jubilee Singers and others who have preserved Spirituals for our ears and hearts to enjoy. May we be as brave and faithful as Fisk University in taking the right risks to fulfill our mission. Amen.

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