Carol Story: Africans in America Go To The Mountain

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…

John Wesley Work Jr.
John Wesley Work Jr.

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

Mahalia Jackson’s classic, unplugged recording, 1950.

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 MOREMahalia 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.

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Carol Story: Hark! It’s The Gospel, Charlie Brown!

This carol is one of 61 on the playlist of “Carol Story,”  a 10-minute play that tells the story of Christ solely through lyrics of Christmas songs as dialogue.  Learn More.


As with Handel’s “Messiah,” discussed in the previous Carol Story essay on songs about the night Jesus was born, the development of “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings” exemplifies  the ever-evolving collaboration (some say interference) of artist, patron and theologian.

The original poem which begat the song, written in 1739 by Methodist pastor and song writer Charles Wesley, was entitled “Hymn for Christmas Day.”  Wesley’s hymn was an epic with over 10 stanzas. It included words that showed Wesley’s intellect but left listeners scratching their heads.  Wesley’s pastor friend, George Whitfield, pointed this out and suggested revisions, simplifying the text.

Half of the Wesley-Whitfield stanzas survived into the next century and made an impression on English composter  William  Cummings. Cummings liked the lyrics, but not the slower, Easter-season tune Wesley had composed (“Christ  The Lord is Risen Today.”) However, Cummings felt the words were compatible with the tune of the popular “Gutenberg Cantata” recently written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn.  Cummings believed Mendelssohn’s symphonic arrangement captured the implied awe and power of a sky full of “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” the passage in the Gospel of Luke that  inspired Wesley’s hymn.

The “Collaborators”

In 1855 the Wesley-Whitfield-Cummings-Mendelssohn  composition debuted with  the structure changes familiar today, but maintaining the essence of the words first recorded centuries before in the gospel of Luke: 

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace,

good will toward men.” —

 (The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-15)


LEARN MORE:  Comparative lyrics.

Centuries later, these words and music created controversy when used in what is not one of the most iconic annual Christmas television programs, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,” the 1965 TV special that almost didn’t occur.

The overt gospel presentation that author Charles Schulz included in the script had CBS network offices and sponsors concerned.  They were okay with the “Peanuts” gang rendering one of the most poignant versions ever of “Hark! The Herald…” as they caroled at Snoopy’s house with Charlie Brown’s revived tree to end the show. 

LEARN MOREGlenn McDonald, CBS & Linus’ security blanket.

What scared the executives was an earlier scene when Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas by reciting the gospel of Luke in the pageant rehearsal. This makes Charlie Brown one of the  few programs that directly speaks the gospel of Christ for a non-church audience.  There was the rub.  Fearing a public backlash about show including the story of Christ in Christmas, CBS wanted the scene cut. Schulz stood firm.  No gospel; no “Peanuts.”  And unto us, a franchise was born.

LEARN MORELinus recites what Christmas is all about.

Many wonder if – or how – the should could be created and aired today.  Nevertheless, the evolution of “Hark! The Herald…” from lengthy, erudite poem, to symphonic anthem, to simple children’s song, to uncomfortable gospel message, point out the enduring strength of the essay researched by Luke the historian.

Poetically, the visuals of the lyrics as presented in #CarolStory starts a sequence of dialogue between the shepherds and the angels.  “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” another carol more recently associated with a children’s cinema favorite (“Gremlins”), is added to the conversation to  begin the evening’s journey.  First , hearing, then seeing the angels,  the shepherds are moved from fear to comfort as they interpret the angels’ mission and  instructions to begin  a Pied-Piperesque journey to Bethlehem, picking up a drummer boy and others as they go away to the manger.

The videos here — the  majesty of Mendelssohn’s  anthem in  Alan Silvestri’s arrangement of “Hark! The Herald…,” contrasted with its  quiet message to Charlie Brown and connected by the intimacy of Johnny Mathis asking, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” — allow us to experience various ways the Lord speaks:  with herald trumpets and a sweet, still voice.

See December Archives (left) for other “Carol Story” stories.

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” Live


Alan Silvestri

Alan Anthony Silvestri is an American composer and conductor known for his film and television scores. He is best known for his frequent collaboration with Robert Zemeckis.  He is a two-time Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominee, and a three-time Saturn Award and Primetime Emmy Award recipient. 

LEARN MORE: The Film Music of Alan Silvestri.


Vince Guaraldi


Vincent Anthony Guaraldi was an American jazz pianist noted for his innovative compositions and arrangements and for composing music for animated television adaptations of the “Peanuts” comic strip, as well as his performances on piano as a member of Cal Tjader’s 1950s ensembles and for his own solo career which included the radio hit Cast Your Fate to the Wind. 

LEARN MORE: The Guaraldi-Peanuts Connection.


Johnny Mathis

John Royce “Johnny” Mathis is an American singer of popular music. According to Guiness Music Chart historian Paul Gambacini, Johnny Mathis has sold well over 360 Million Records Worldwide making him the 3rd biggest selling artist of the 20th Century. Mathis has received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for three separate recordings.

LEARN MORE:  Johnny Mathis Biography.

LEARN MORE: Donate and Partner with Kingdom Impact Theater.

Carol Story: Elvis & The Prophecy

This carol is one of 61 on the playlist of “Carol Story,”  a 10-minute play that tells the story of Christ solely through lyrics of Christmas songs as dialogue.  Learn More.


O Little Town of Bethlehem” is the fulfillment of prophecy that was proclaimed in Micah 5:1-2.  This eloquently recording by Elvis Presley, backed up by his compatriots The Jordanaires, is from  his simple beginnings and reflect his deep, yet embattled faith in Christ. 

Elvis was poster-child for conflicted Believers, especially those in performing arts.  He was among the first of countless recording artists — such as  Sam Cooke and Whitney Houston — who began singing in church and, in many cases, started their musical careers recording gospel, worship and praise songs, but who later passed away because of dubious life choices.

LEARN MORE:  Micah’s Bethlehem Prophecy

Before the glitz and worldly temptations led to “Blue Christmas” and its ilk, Presley’s pure baritone resonated in gospel selections. Even backstage before concert, Elvis and his posse would warm up with songs of the gospel genre. He occasionally included some onstage.

His interpretation here presents the crispness of the night, the peace on earth, the calm before the storm of activity.  

We cannot tell #CarolStory without the lyrics which introduce new characters and setting in which to act the events of travelling to Bethelehem to see this thing that had been fulfilled.

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

LEARN MORE:
“Carol Story” Live

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires

Elvis Aaron Presley was an American singer and actor. Regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, he is often referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll” or simply “the King.”

LEARN MORE:  Elvis’ Biography

More Christmas MEMos and Wonderings

Advent Revelations

Christmas and All The (Indy) News

Shopping at 15

Combatting Cultural Christmas

Sinterklaas, Piet and Me

Sophomoric Christmas

Worship in The Barn

The Virgin Shall Be With Child: Really?

When the 25th Is Over

Carol Story: The Life of Christ Through Poetry of Songs

There  has been much conversation lately about the meaning of some songs that have become associated with the Christmas season.  That is,  songs song about cold and winter that are sung during the Thanksgiving and New Year’s  holidays then not heard again for another 12 months.

Without assessing a viewpoint on a particular song, admittedly it’s  good to frequently examine what we sing and what we say.  Scripture reminds us to do so, especially teachings, spirits and self.  Re-examination not only yields growth, it also deepens discoveries that yield fruit.  Those who lead music for Christian worship are regularly challenged to test the lyrics of newer songs for theological accuracy as well as singability.

 At the same time, it’s important to frequently revisit beloved “traditional” songs to make certain we know what we’re saying, and not just singing songs because “it’s my favorite.” Grasping the intent or rationale of creator (small C) is essential in evaluating any work of art, be it music, book, film or visual.  This is, perhaps, a reason for some of the conversations about holiday outside of church circles today.

Carol Story Promo
“Carol Story” cast, Michael Edgar Myers, Vikki J. Myers and Garlan

Over a decade ago, Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries, which my wife and I co-founded as an outgrowth of our work in Christian education at our home church, took such a lyrical journey. We took a fresh look at the lyrics and origins of songs associated with Christmas, and discovered fascinating and cathartic messages. 

Exploring the Christmas songs — notably the carols —  enables a careful listener to actually hear the gospel message of Christ:  from birth to death to resurrection to second Christmas yet-to-come.  This discovery enabled us to create a one-act play, “Carol Story,” that consists solely of the lyrics of Christmas carols spoken as dialogue.

Carol Story The Easter Edition
“The Easter Edition” songs & scripture.

“Carol Story” has grown beyond our expectations and is now a requested holiday season presentation.  So much  so, we received a request for a companion piece for Easter.  While our “Carol Story” schedule for this year is filled, the stories associated with the songs are on-going.   So, in this space and in our social media outlets, we’ll share some of the stories behind the 61 songs that are adapted for the scripts of “Carol Story” and “Carol Story: The Easter Edition.”

LEARN MORE:   The Carol Story & Carol Story Easter Edition Playlist

We do so because, just as there are some songs we only hear during the Christmas season then forgot for a year, there are many more whose message should be remembered for eternity.

LEARN MORE:  Donate and Partner with Kingdom Impact Theater.

From the Other Side of the Pond

Many of the songs we associate as Christmas songs, or as Christmas carols, originated in other nations.  As often occurs today, new songs were created by adapting fresh lyrics to standard tunes.  The process made the new tune singable more quickly. 

LEARN MORESee “Carol Story” Live.

Two well-known non-Christmas examples are “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee),” whose tune is the British national anthem, “God Save The Queen;” and, the U.S. national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That patriotic poem Francis Scott Key wrote during the War of 1812 was paired with a popular drinking song hailed in American pubs as if to thumb their noses at the British. 

LEARN MORE:  KIT Ministries Ensemble Productions

The prelude to “Carol Story” demonstrates examples of this technique with brief samples of popular Christmas songs whose origins were folk songs on foreign shores.  One from England, one from France, one for Ukraine. As a bonus, we  wish you a Merry Christmas in the spirit of Christmas today — joy in His name — not as the song was originally intended: as a sarcastic response from the poor to the rich, but a heartfelt sign for you to learn and share when the time is appropriate.

Greensleeves (England)

Shchedryk (Ukraine)
Minuit Cretiens (France)
We Wish You A Merry Christmas (signed)