Go Tell It on the Mountain

by

James Baldwin

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Music Symbol Icon

Music takes on a twofold meaning in Go Tell It on the Mountain: depending on the genre, music represents both morality and immorality, redemption and sin. On the one hand, hymns and gospel songs—artifacts of religion—represent spiritual purity and moral perfection. The novel’s title is a reference to a popular African American spiritual song, and the novel’s characters are brought closer to God through songs and music. Music is a major part of church and tarry services at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, and even when Florence has forgotten how to pray, she can still remember the words to her mother, Rachel’s, favorite gospel song, “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” The music of the Temple of the Fire Baptized has “been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath,” and it “caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord.” But John only reluctantly sings in church and refuses to clap or dance; he believes himself a sinner and thus doesn’t think he has the “right to sing or rejoice,” further suggesting that religious songs represent spiritual and moral purity in the novel.

As gospel music and hymns are symbolic of God and religion, jazz music and rhythm and blues are symbolic of sin and immorality. The “sinners” who frequent the whiskey houses and gin joints near John’s Harlem church listen to the blues, and blues music is frequently associated with “harlots” and whorehouses in the novel. Frank, Florence’s ex-husband, who was, according to Florence, “determined to live and die a common [n_____],” “drank too much” and “sang the blues”—from Florence’s perspective, Frank’s penchant for the blues was reflective of his immorality.

However, despite what his characters may think, Baldwin forces his readers to reevaluate “sinners” in relation to popular stereotypes of immorality, like listening to the blues or jazz, and suggests that this music isn’t sinful in and of itself. Baldwin frequently references the spiritual song, “I Looked Down the Line (And I Wondered),” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Sister Tharpe’s unique blend of gospel and the blues was wildly popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, and she was one of the very first cross-over acts, successfully performing her spiritual songs at jazz clubs and dance halls across America. Through references to the music of Sister Tharpe and others, Baldwin suggests that one can be both moral and sing the blues.

Music Quotes in Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Go Tell It on the Mountain quotes below all refer to the symbol of Music. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain published in 2013.
Part 1: The Seventh Day Quotes

I looked down the line,
And I wondered.

Related Characters: John
Related Symbols: Music
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

It seemed that he could not breathe, that his body could not contain this passion, that he would be, before their eyes, dispersed into the waiting air. His hands, rigid to the very fingertips, moved outward and back against his hips, his sightless eyes looked upward, and he began to dance. Then his hands closed into fists, and his head snapped downward, his sweat loosening the grease that slicked down his hair; and the rhythm of all the others quickened to match Elisha’s rhythm; his thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit, his heels beat on the floor, and his fists moved beside his body as though he were beating his own drum. And so, for a while, in the center of the dancers, head down, fists beating, on, on, unbearably, until it seemed the walls of the church would fall for very sound; and then, in a moment, with a cry, head up, arms high in the air, sweat pouring from his forehead, and all his body dancing as though it would never stop. Sometimes he did not stop until he fell—until he dropped like some animal felled by a hammer—moaning, on his face.

Related Characters: John, Elisha
Related Symbols: Music
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Go Tell It on the Mountain LitChart as a printable PDF.
Go Tell It on the Mountain PDF

Music Symbol Timeline in Go Tell It on the Mountain

The timeline below shows where the symbol Music appears in Go Tell It on the Mountain. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: The Seventh Day
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...John listens to them, “over the sound of rats’ feet” and “rat screams” and the “music and cursing” coming from the “harlot’s house downstairs.” (full context)
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...service always begins with Elisha at the piano. To John, it seems as if “this music has been with [him]” ever since his “first drawn breath.” The song doesn’t much matter;... (full context)
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...is planning to soon go out “into the field” to preach, and she has “ buckled on her traveling shoes .” (full context)
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...in the Word or you ain’t—ain’t no halfway with God.” She suggests they sing a song to begin their service as they wait for the other saints, and Elisha begins to... (full context)
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...my last time, I don’t know.” John tries “not to hear the words” as he sings with the others. He doesn’t want to sing, but he knows they will “force” him... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Florence’s Prayer
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Sitting in the church, Florence begins to sing the only religious song she knows, one she can remember her mother, Rachel, singing long ago. “It’s me, it’s... (full context)
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Florence’s late husband, Frank, “drank too much” and “sang the blues.” Once he grew a “tiny mustache,” but Florence said it made him look “like a... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Gabriel’s Prayer
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...he would find himself,” Gabriel found the Lord. Gabriel always swears that he heard a song afterward. “I heard my mother singing,” he claims, “like she knew if she just called... (full context)
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...his people had wandered from God.” They worshipped “idols of gold and silver,” and their music was not of saints but of “gin-heavy dance halls.” (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Elizabeth’s Prayer
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...to play. Elizabeth can hear others “weeping,” but she isn’t sure who is crying. The song the congregation begins to sing had been Elizabeth’s aunt’s favorite. “The consecrated cross I’ll bear... (full context)
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...proud.” He never learned of Elizabeth’s disgrace either. She thinks of him now as she sings—about how much he would love John and how much John is like him. (full context)
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As the church sings the nostalgic hymn, Elizabeth thinks of Richard. He had been the one to take Elizabeth... (full context)
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Elizabeth’s thoughts are interrupted by a new song and singing in the church. She continues her prayer, but she knows it is “in... (full context)
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...on the way into her building, John began to wriggle and dance to sound of blues music coming from the home of a nearby “harlot.” “You’s a [n_____], all right,” Elizabeth... (full context)
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...Gabriel, and Elizabeth sat and visited, while John fell asleep to the sound of the blues. From that moment on, Elizabeth, “who had descended with such joy and pain, had begun... (full context)