We are camped around Mount Sinai, we have separated from our spouses, and are preparing to receive the word…..of G-d. The Holy Day of Shavuot can be seen as a majestic means of obtaining Torah. Our custom of learning all night awaiting the word makes this Holy Day communal in this aspect. With the Holy Day of Passover we feast together in order to remember our exodus from Egypt. On Sukkot we reconvene, non-Jews are welcome as well, in Jerusalem to commemorate our temporary existence in the huts of travel. Sukkot comes to its great climax with the joyous, and in the Talmud varied in practice, order of the water libation. The communal aspect of Shavuot is through the act of learning, and teaching, throughout the world.
I want to honor the Holy Day (In my belated style) by focusing on the title song to this title blog post…”Go Tell it on the Mountain”
“Go Tell it on the Mountain” originally was an African-American spiritual, compiled by John Wesley Work Jr. dating back to at least 1865. Its original intentions, and lyrics, provided the backdrop for a spiritual invocation for the Christian holiday of Christmas. The song depicts the nativity scene with the lyrics ringing out…
“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere,
go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”
Very nice, but not that Jewish. Although, not quite yet. Many famous artists have recorded this song through the early part of the 20th Century. However, by the late 1950’s early 1960’s the song was changed due to the changing face of the United States. In 1963 the folky trip of Peter, Paul, and Mary, along with their musical director, Milt Okun, adapted and rewrote the lyrics to the song and renaming it “Tell it on the Mountain.”
According to various historical sources the lyrics reflected the Civil Rights struggle. This point was further punctuated by the use of Biblical imagery, as found in the Torah in the book of Exodus, and the call to “Let my people go” as said by Moses to Pharoah. It is theorized, although not substantiated, that it was the African-American Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer who adopted the new style to the old song.
Hamer, who was a dynamo in her own right, apparently combined this song with the spiritual “Go Down Moses” taking the last line of the chorus, and substituting it for the chorus of “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” This is compelling as we see how the notion of Jewish suffering, via the Hebrew Torah, can be felt by the African-American activists and leaders during the Civil Rights struggle. The use of the Exodus story with the singing of old spirituals provided a new soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement, bit also the greater popular music machine in the United States.
This is a perfect example of the continuation of the mixture of Jews and African-Americans in the realm of music. By using the biblical imagery that was usually associated with Jews, the plight became fraternal between Jews and blacks. Although many Jewish composers, songwriters, and performers have been touting this since the beginning of the 20th Century, this is another example that can seem lost on the relationship between the two people. Not only was the Civil Rights era another highpoint of mutual cooperation between Jews and blacks, it was another venue for creating new musical styles and songs. This re-invention is in line with the evolution of synthesizing music by both blacks and Jews from each other’s historical experiences.
Most of the recordings of the song remain Christian based with the Christmas theme, and eschewing the Civil Rights combination. However, one the best recordings of the song, with the Hebrew component, was recorded by the great Jamaican group, the Wailers. The Wailers recorded this early on in their career, with the original core of the band. Peter Tosh’s voice bellows out the words connecting telling it on the mountain that Moses will tell the people to exodus out of Egypt land.
The Wailers, and sung by Peter Tosh.
Enjoy, and a happy belated Shavuot.