Mahalia’s Gift: “Go Tell It On the Mountain”

Mahalia Jackson soars in a performance photograpghed by Lee Friedlander.
Mahalia Jackson soars in a performance photograpghed by Lee Friedlander. [Source: NPR]

Once upon a time, I ran as fast as I could to get away from Holiday Muzak at the shopping mall. One of my earliest newspaper columns railed against the psychotropic effects of hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” twenty times a day. I risk convulsions and catatonia even now after brief exposure to that one. About a decade ago, something changed. I was searching for something. I began to hear clues in some of the schmaltziest songs. The grace notes were taking me somewhere. Every December I listened for it to come around again — not the sight but the sound of that transcendent star spinning in the silent night. That’s how my AltXmas Playlist began.

Early in the journey, I realized the path was taking me back to the music of my childhood. My beacon was Mahalia Jackson’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” A lifelong love of gospel music, one of the most enduring gifts my parents gave me, began with this song. Had the Sunday School Methodists sung out as Mahalia sang, jubilantly, straight from the heart, this little lamb might not have strayed so far from the fold. Mahalia recorded several versions of the song. I think my playlist track is the one from my parents’ stack of 33 rpm lp’s. When I listen to it now, I’m drawn to the understated duet by organ and piano behind Mahalia’s canonic, Rock-of-Ages voice.

The duet carries me back to the earliest musicians of my childhood, my father and his mother, Ona. Neither of them could walk past a piano without sitting down to play a song. Both played the organ, too. I know I heard them play four-handed boogie-woogie once. Fifty years later, I imagine them playing a duet together somewhere in heaven whenever I hear “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”

I put my AltXmas Playlist together before there was YouTube and before blogging was accessible to me. The original Mahalia Jackson recording of “Go Tell It On The Mountain” was on YouTubefor a time, but alas, no longer. The astounding version by the Blind Boys of Alabama with Tom Waits is still there for now.

As I find YouTube versions of other songs from the playlist, I’ll sample them here. It goes without saying that I don’t mean “sample” in the legal sense, so if the Copyright Grinch is snooping around, calm down, dude, it’s Christmas,. However, some brigand did bootleg a few copies of the complete playlist once. If Santa didn’t sneak one under your door and you’d like to hear it, let me know. I’ve got a Santa connection.

Originally posted December 22, 2007.

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