It may be fair to conclude that the first Christmas carol created on the shores of the U.S. was by Americans of African descent. That is, African-Americans.
Keep in mind that, in #CarolStory, the ten-minute play by Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries, the definition of a Christmas carol is a song that includes the salvation message of Christ amid the story of the birth of Jesus.
Until “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was put to paper by John Wesley Work Jr., in 1906, the traditional carols sung in the States originated in Europe. Work collected, transcribed and published numerous songs born from the oral traditions of African-American slavery. Many were sung by the original Fisk Jubilee Singers after the Civil War.
LEARN MORE: John Wesley Work & Fisk University Singers
“Go Tell It…” embodies the faith many slaves deeply held in Christianity as their route to freedom once they unraveled the scriptures for themselves. This contasted with acquiescence to the limited Bible knowledge misappropriated by their owners to justify enslavement.
As with many slave songs, “Go Tell It…” is coded. The title implies the direct evangelical imperative to go and tell others of Him that Jesus gave after His resurrection; His earlier declaration that even the rocks would tell who He is, and the post-birth sharing by the birth by the shepherds and the Wise Men. Such allusions made the song palatable to owners who missed the potential abolitionist cues “to go” from place to places and prepare for liberation.
The latter idea was not lost upon civil rights advocates in the 1960s who adapted the tune and lyrics as a freedom song.
Many recorded arrangements of “Go Tell It…” embellish the lyrics with joyous gospel funk rhythms, and live choirs embrace the audience sing-along qualities. Either interpretation is effective. The #CarolStoryPlaylist includes video versions that show the universality of the lyrics, and represent the sacred passion of the Negro spirituals which Works captured from the Jubilee Singers.
The playlist again employs a rendition by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, that reflects the soulful hope characteristic in spirituals.
The universal influence of “Go Tell It…” is illustrated in two videos borrowed from the playlist of “Freedom Song,” the Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries historical program about African-American music and Biblical scriptures. One is a recording by a choir in Oslo, Norway. The other, by the 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary, captures the abolitionist spirit by adapting the lyrics as a civil rights anthem show.
LEARN MORE:Adapted Lyrics and Recordings History.
One More Thing…
Not as well known as the European composers before him, many of the authors of gospel and Christmas songs afterwards, or even the Fisk Jubilee Singers whose music he catalogued and chronicled, John Wesley Work Jr. Is an important person to know and study. And so, we link.
LEARN MORE: John Wesley Work Jr. Biography.
LEARN MORE: Songs Adapted, Arranged by John Wesley Work Jr.
Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.” She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.
LEARN MORE: Mahalia Jackson Biography
Mahalia Jackson is also one of the individuals whose story is included in the Kingdom Impact Theater production, “Faith, Hope & Love: History-Making Women of Faith,” a one-woman performance by Vikki J. Myers.
The Oslo Gospel Choir
Oslo Gospel Choir is a Norwegian gospel choir centred in Oslo, Norway conducted by Tore W. Aas. The choir started in 1988 and has become one of the most successful in Europe and America. They have released around 20 albums. They are very much influenced by the American black gospel sound and Andraé Crouch is a major source of inspiration, with his approach in taking the gospel out of the churches and into other arenas, reaching a larger audience. The choir has sold over 1.5 million albums.
LEARN MORE: Oslo Gospel Choir History
Peter, Paul & Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary was an American folk group formed in New York City in 1961, during the American folk music revival phenomenon. The trio was composed of tenor Peter Yarrow, baritone Noel Paul Stookey and alto Mary Travers. The group’s repertoire included songs written by Yarrow and Stookey, early songs by Bob Dylan as well as covers of other folk musicians. After the death of Travers in 2009, Yarrow and Stookey continued to perform as a duo under their individual names.
LEARN MORE: Peter, Paul and Mary History.