Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk University
By all rights, this oughta be a pretty miserable Christmas. There’s no money for coal, we’ve eaten enough cheap beef that I swear I’m part cow, and the whole freedman’s school is probably headed toward collapse in a year or two.
But I got chocolate tonight. Actual chocolate, can you believe it? Oranges too. And so the world doesn’t seem so bad after all. Good ol’ Mr. Spence was feeling generous tonight, after we sang for him and his wife and some rich white folks at a Christmas social they had.
Mr. White—that’s George White, school treasurer, music instructor, and the tallest man at Fisk University, you can’t miss him—is starting up a choir. A cantata, he calls it, where we’re going to sing songs the proper way just to prove we can. I’m the star tenor, of course. Only because bossy Maggie Porter can only sing one part at once, though. I swear if she could do more, she’d take over soprano, tenor, bass, and director besides!
Mr. White’s got grand plans for some kind of fundraising tour. As if Mr. Spence would let him get away with that. Another one of his crazy schemes that’ll never take off, like as not. But it got us to put together a decent program for the school’s social, so that’s something, anyhow. Afterward, Mr. White let us into the kitchen for some sweets, then rushed on back to meet and greet with donors and such. So there we were, a dozen of us young people, all on our own.
And everybody knows that’s when the real singing starts.
Now, I’ve got nothing against that white music. Some of the songs, hymns and things, they’re real nice. But they’re missing a little something, something that’s in the songs we learned before the War, when we were still slaves. Those, we only sing when it’s just us about.
Not like we’re ashamed of them or anything. Well, some of us are, maybe. They don’t have proper grammar and such like they’re teaching us in school. Mostly, though, it’s because they’re too special. Private. Not the thing for concert halls…but just right for the Fisk University kitchen on Christmas Eve.
Some call them spirituals because folks took the words straight out of the Bible. Hardly a one could read a Scripture if you put a book in front of them, and they wouldn’t admit it if they could, that being illegal and all. But some slaves got dragged to the fly-buzzed Negro gallery of their masters’ churches every Sunday, and they heard enough.
They heard about Moses and Elijah and Daniel. They heard about Jesus.
Oh, sure, preacher always rounded things out with texts about slaves obeying as unto the Lord. We learned those ones real well. But we heard the rest too. We learned: the masters’ God was born as humble as any one of us…and he knew about all about suffering.
We figured maybe he was our God too, no matter what we heard in church.
That’s what the songs were about. Sure, we sang religious words so the overseers wouldn’t shout at us to be quiet. Some songs were codes, even, for secret nightly meetings or even escapes. Most of them, though, were a call-and-response shuffle-beat plea for something better than this tired old life.
You feel that way sometimes? I do still, even though I’m free now. There’s a whole lot of hurt out there. I have no mother or father, and neither do over half of the other students. My first memory is my mother being sold away. I was three years old. Maybe that’s why seeing those pictures of Mary with her baby at this time of year always gets to me so much.
It feels good to switch to a happy song after a sad one. Ella—Miss Sheppard, I mean…we’re supposed to call the girls by their last names, even if they only just picked one out for themselves after the War—she taught us a new one.
If we could gather them all up, probably about a dozen freedman would sing us different verses, but the chorus is always the same:
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.
Who wrote it? Your guess is good as mine. Songs like that, someone starts ‘em, calls out a line, someone else responds. They spread from one plantation to another, one backcountry farm to the next, when slaves were sold and families broke apart.
We all wrote it, maybe.
Sometimes, back in slavery days, you sang songs of jubilee because you really meant it. Sometimes, because you were being watched, and if the master thought you were happy, that meant more food, more drink. He’d rest a little easier that night, telling himself just how content we were, how much we needed his care.
We made a time of it at Christmas, though. Only day the field hands got off all year, and usually with a feast too. Some got passes to visit family at neighboring farms. The overseer passed out our year’s clothing allowance to replace what had gone all dingy and threadbare. There were bonfires and dancing and music.
I can still hear the fiddlers playing clear to midnight. Stealing glances at the pretty girls who noticed how well I sang. Laughing. Feeling almost like a person, a real one.
Now I can sing anytime. Not just in the fields, not just at Christmas. That’s why I joined the choir in the first place. Well…and to impress the ladies. Let me tell you, that Jenny Jackson is easy on the eyes over there in the soprano section.
But I already got caught and punished for passing love notes once. Mr. Spence was fit to be tied. Such things are “strictly prohibited” at Fisk. I pointed out, all innocent, that it was so blasted hard to keep track, there being more rules than roaches here. He wasn’t impressed. So now I’m reformed and focusing on “more worthy pursuits” like my end-of-term exams…which I should have been studying for tonight instead of staying up late and singing in the kitchen.
But it was worth it. Yes sir, there’s something about music, especially at this time of year.
Mama’d be proud of me, wherever she is. I know that.
And who knows? If this tour of Mr. White’s really does come off, maybe, somehow in all our travels, I’ll find her again.
(This is the fourth in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true origins of beloved Christmas carols. A group of singers from the university, including Tom, did go on tour. They became known as the Jubilee Singers, and popularized spirituals all over America and Europe. A later Fisk director, John Wesley Work Jr., published the arrangements the choirs had sung, including “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” To learn more about Tom, go here. To read past narratives, go here.)