Some people should not attempt to sing spiritual carols like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” I’m an American, I lived in the South; no Christmas was finished until someone sang this as a solo, or a choir echoed it through an all-pews-filled church. It is a beautiful, beautiful hymn, written by people who had longed for freedom and peace. It has to be sung from the heart, or not at all.
Gospel hymns make it into hymnals for a couple of reasons. One is the perception that they are easy to sing. The other is that they are ethnically inclusive. The former is usually not true, because the notation of the hymn is untrue to the improvisation of the original, and the second is often condescending, removing something beautiful from its context and trying to make it universal.
To sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” well means that the singers have to know the experience of waiting patiently, with sometimes just a glimmer of hope. The singers can’t be afraid of the song. They’ve got to be willing to rock it some, give it some soul, open up to its possibilities and improvisations. It needs to be sung a capella, without amplification, and with an audience who knows where it came from and why, at least somewhere in their hearts. Like many gospel hymns, it is deeper than its simple words and melody would suggest.
I love good gospel hymns, especially the old ones. They speak to the heart of freedom, love and joy. They speak of release from the sins of this world and the glory of the Lord’s world, living amongst us and yet to come. I love it when they are sung by a choir well-versed in the gospel ways, who have sung together for years, whose roots are in gospel and soul. These are the choirs that came up singing a capella because for years the churches couldn’t afford instruments. They trained each successive generation to use their voices like the parts of an orchestra. They make room for the Holy Spirit to enter and transform the singer and the listener.
That doesn’t have to be limited to gospel choirs. Every choir, every church musician could open their hearts to that possibility. Every preacher, every liturgist, every litanist, every listener could ask that Spirit to teach them of liberation, of simple joy, of hope, and of love.