Christmas Song Analysis: Go Tell It On The Mountain

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Go Tell It On The Mountain Christmas spiritual sheet musicThe spirited Christmas song “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” like the best African-American spirituals and southern gospel hymns, is a work of sophisticated simplicity, with crisp action verbs, strong nouns, colorful phrases, a tight narrative structure and a fun, singable melody. Before we examine it here on My Song In The Night, a short history and audio recording for you:

Some scholars think Frederick Jerome Work (1880-1942 wrote “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” Work was an African-American composer and scholar who collected and arranged spirituals, including this one in 1907. Other scholars believe slaves had been singing this American folk carol since at least the 1860’s, so Work could not have composed it.

Whether Work wrote “Go Tell It On The Mountain” or found and preserved it, the Christmas song didn’t attain its current popularity until the mid-20th century. By then, jazz, blues and early rock’n roll had taken the U.S. by storm. The energetic, driving rhythm and lyrics of “Go Tell It On The Mountain” made it a favorite of young Americans.

Our church Sojourn drew inspiration from the Blues and African-American spirituals in this new recording of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” featuring our friend and Sojourn New Albany worship director Justin Shaffer:

Most arrangements of Go Tell It On The Mountain begin with the simple refrain which draws from:

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7)

Sojourn New Albany Worship Director Justin Shaffer, playing guitar in concert as part of his band Pines Of Rome

"Go Tell It On The Mountain" vocalist Justin Shaffer. Yeah, that hat looks Christmas-y

The song exhorts us to tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere/ that Jesus Christ is born.”  Then the first verse sets the scene:

While shepherds kept their watching
o’er silent flocks by night,
Behold, throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light

The rhyming pattern in this verse, and the others, is “ABCB” (meaning the even numbered lines rhyme at the end). And we’ve got some internal rhym with “Behold/shone.” The focus is on the shepherds tending their sheep, when the word “Behold” screams for our attention: A mysterious light from the heavens! Then notice how the strong, active verbs bring the shepherds’ scene to life in verse two:

The shepherds feared and trembled
When low above the earth,
Rang out the angels chorus
That hailed our Savior’s birth.

“Feared/ trembled/ rang/ hailed” draw us into the story. This isn’t a gentle White Christmas lullaby — this is an Action-Adventure. And the music keeps its end of the bargain, with a driving rhythm and rollicking melody.

We also see some internal slant rhyme with “Rang/angels/hailed.” Good, tight writing.

Now the story advances:

And lo! When they had heard it,
They all bowed down to pray,
Then travelled on together,
To where the Baby lay.

Again, the short, direct lines work because of the descriptive action verbs (heard, bowed, travelled). And again, though the only end rhymes occur on lines 2 and 4, other poetic devices help make the song easy to memorize and pleasurable to sing and hear:

  • Internal slant rhyme (bowed/down; they/pray/baby/lay)
  • Alliteration (travelled/together; they/then; when/where)
Nativity Invasion: Red toy truck in a manger

Not historically correct. Archaelogists say there probably could not have been a red truck in the manger. Maybe a blue one.

We reach the climax in the final verse: the end of our shepherds’ travels, the lowly manger, the humble Christ — our salvation, delivered on that blessed Christmas morn.

Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.

When this writer uses an adjective, she or he uses it well. The humble Christ. We can use many adjectives to describe Christ, but “humble” is the best one for this setting: God the Son, present with the Father in creation, by whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made. King of heaven, now come as an infant. And not to a cradle of gold in a palace, but to a manger — a lowly manger.

And when? On the blessed Christmas morn. The writer emphasizes the blessedness of this event, in which salvation comes down (“down,” the position of the “humble”). Every word works together to produce this writer’s desired effect.

A Word On The Meter:
Many spirituals are unmetered. The music may contain a cadence that musicians refer to as meter, but strictly speaking, there is no poetic meter — no set pattern of stresses and syllables per line. But the hymn meter of Go Tell It On The Mountain is tight. Although the refrain itself is unmetered, the verses are:


Meaning every odd-numbered line contains seven syllables, and every even numbered line contains six. This is a variation on the Common Meter (86.86) used by 17th century English hymnists like Isaac Watts and Anne Steel (and many still today). English hymnists of the 19th and early 20th centuries brought 76.76 into common use, although some 76.76 English hymns were originally written in earlier times, in other languages (for instance, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, written in Latin in 1153, translated to German in 1656, and English in 1830).  Other hymns in 76.76 meter include:

  • All Glory, Laud and Honor
  • God Is My Strong Salvation
  • The Voice Of God Is Calling
  • Lead On O King Eternal
76.76 is a folksy, fun meter. One major difference between Common Meter hymns and that of songs like the spiritual Go Tell It On The Mountain and most 76.76 hymns is that this hymn meter lends itself to ending the odd-numbered lines with multi-syllabled words, where the final syllable is a falling, soft syllable. For instance, look at these end-of-line words in O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. Notice how the accent is always on the second-to-last syllable rather than the last one:
  • Wounded
  • Surrounded
  • Glory
  • Gory
  • Suffered
  • Transgression
And so on. We see the same pattern in Go Tell It On The Mountain:
  • Watching
  • Heavens
  • Trembled
  • Chorus

It gives these songs a different feel than that of Common Meter hymns like Amazing Grace and my song Let Your Blood Plead For Me, written with Mike Cosper and Jeremy Quillo, based on “Lord, How Secure My Conscience Was” by Isaac Watts.

So you can give a song a different feel, just by something as simple as dropping one syllable off the odd-numbered lines and making the final syllable soft (this effect used to be called “Feminine” in poetry circles). In the case of Go Tell It On The Mountain, it helps make the Christmas spiritual exciting, assertive and fun.

Justin Shaffer photo courtesy Chuck Heeke
Manger and truck photo by Marlene Scoville, used via Creative Commons license

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