Tuesday, March 27, 2007

History of Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

(Part IV in a five-part series on the song Lift Every Voice and Sing written by James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson.)

Today’s post deals with the history surrounding the composition of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. The last and final post on the series will contain a bit of musical analysis and a conclusion.

Augusta Savage's The Harp was inspired by Lift Every Voice and Sing. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In 1900 James Weldon Johnson had been asked to speak at the Stanton Public Schools celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Instead of a speech, he had decided to compose a poem, but his muse was slow to deliver inspiration for a poem. With time running short, he asked his brother Rosamond to help him write a song. Lift Ev’ry Voice was the product of their efforts. They sent the song to their New York publisher, who mimeographed copies so the song could be taught to a choir of 500 schoolchildren who sang it at the Lincoln celebration. The preface to Lift Every Voice and Sing (cited below) contains a 1935 quote where James Weldon Johnson recounts the ripple effect of that historic performance:

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

In February 2002, Dave Person of National Public Radio did a piece on on Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. I hope you will click on this link and listen. (You need RealPlayer). It is a moving piece combining facts interspersed with music. In his piece, Person relates how James Weldon Johnson never wanted the song referred to as the Negro National Anthem. He always used the word hymn instead. He felt that there divisions might arise between races if there were more than one national anthem and during his time in the NAACP he often cautioned people against calling the song an anthem. The fact that he could never eradicate the unofficial anthem designation speaks to the transcendent meaning the song held for people.

To understand the unique role this hymn played in shaping the lives and consciousnesses of African Americans, I recommend the book I mentioned above -- Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem: 100 Years, 100 Voices edited by Julian Bond, known for his work in the Civil Rights movement and now serving as chairman of the board of the NAACP and professor of history at the University of Virginia, and Sondra K. Wilson, the executor of James Weldon Johnson’s literary properties and an associate of the W. E. B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. I read over and over the specific instances in which it gave inspiration: how many years ago schoolchildren in the south began their day by singing it, how it gave dignity in the face of racist insult, how one generation taught it to another, how present day teachers assigned it to their students so the tradition singing it would not be lost, etc. Reading these 100 essays was really amazing and often quite moving. I find it unbelievable, actually, that one song could have had such an effect.

In conclusion, I will quote Wikipedia's lovely summary of the historic significance the song has achieved in the last 100 years.

Singing this song quickly became a way for African Americans to demonstrate their patriotism and hope for the future. In calling for earth and heaven to "ring with the harmonies of Liberty," they could speak out subtly against racism and Jim Crow laws — and especially the huge number of lynchings accompanying the rise of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the century. In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song as "The Negro National Anthem." By the 1920's, copies of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" could be found in black churches across the country, often pasted into the hymnals.

During and after the American Civil Rights Movement, the song experienced a rebirth, and by the 1970's was often sung immediately after The Star Spangled Banner at public events and performances across the United States where the event had a significant African-American population.

In 1990, singer
Melba Moore released a modern rendition of the song... Partly because of the success of this recording, Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing was entered into the Congressional Record as the official African American National Hymn.

All Americans who value justice and equality can sing this song. It applies to our times as well. The struggle against racism is far from over, so we too can...

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Thursday, March 15, 2007

J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)

(Part III in a five-part series on the song Lift Every Voice and Sing written by James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson.)

Photo: Copyright ©2001 by Yale University

John Rosamond Johnson, born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1874, was the youngest of the three Johnson children. Although his first name was John, he was called Rosamond by his family and friends. Professionally, he referred to himself as J. Rosamond Johnson.

Rosamond’s special talent was music. He began piano lessons with his mother when he was 4 years old. After graduating from the Stanton Public school in 1891, he went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where he studied piano, organ, composition, and voice. He also studied music in London.

Around 1896 he left the conservatory to pursue an interest in musical comedy. It is believed that he toured as a vocalist with Oriental America, a company that staged the first African-American show on Broadway to differ from a burlesque house performance. Most likely, Jacksonville served as home base during the time he toured with Oriental America, because he held the administrative position of Supervisor of Music in the Jacksonville public schools from 1896-1899.

By 1898 Rosamond settled full time in Jacksonville, and in addition to his job with the Jacksonville public school system, he worked as organist and choirmaster of a large Baptist church and taught music once a week at the Baptist Academy. He also gave private piano lessons. The level of instruction he offered was far above that of previous itinerant musicians who taught in Jacksonville. James Weldon Johnson, in his autobiography called Along This Way, says: (1)

Rosamond had begun to using some of James’ poetry as texts for his composition. Their first joint effort was a comic opera that satirized American imperialism after the Spanish-American War. It was never produced, but it introduced the Johnsons to many influential people in show business.

In 1902 the Johnson brothers left Jacksonville to seek their fortune on Broadway. As a team with Bob Cole, an African-American lyricist, composer and vaudeville performer, they wrote musical comedies which were produced on Broadway with an all-black cast. They also wrote more than 200 popular songs in which their goal was to elevate the lyrical sophistication of Negro songs.

After James accepted a diplomatic appointment to Venezuela in 1906, Rosamond and Bob formed their own theater company and put on several successful productions until 1911 when Bob Cole died. The Library of Congress website states that “[Rosamond] Johnson’s compositional skills were the strongpoints of his musicals and vaudeville performances. Musicologist Thomas Riis considers Johnson’s harmonic language to be the richest of all the other black theater composers of his time save for Will Marion Cook.” (2)

After Cole’s death, Rosamond’s success continued. He composed the music and conducted the orchestra for the 1911 Broadway revue called Hello Paris, marking the first time an African-American had conducted an all-white orchestra for an all-white cast in a New York theater. He gave a piano performance in “A Concert of Negro Music” in Carnegie Hall on May 2, 1912. In that same year Oscar Hammerstein appointed him musical director of his Grand Opera House in London. There, Rosamond met Nora Floyd. They were married on June 3, 1912 and lived in London until 1914 when they returned to New York and started the Music School Settlement for Colored People. That was the year that ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) was formed, and Rosamond was one of only 6 African-Americans in the original membership of 170 people. In 1917, Rosamond directed a singing orchestra which appeared in a series of ground-breaking plays at the Garden Theater in Madison Square Garden. The plays had a relatively short run due to the fact that the US declared war on Germany the day after the play opened. During the World War I Rosamond served as a second lieutenant with the 15th Regiment.

After the war Rosamond concentrated on his collections, arrangements, and performances of Negro spirituals. He wrote the score to Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson in 1921. He published The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1926. He toured the US and Europe with Taylor Gordon giving performances of these works. In the following decade Rosamond published two more volumes -- Shout Songs in 1936 and Rolling Along in Song in 1937.

In the thirties, Rosamond’s acting career took precedence. Between 1929 and 1946 he performed in a variety of plays and musicals, most notably singing the role of Lawyer Frazier in Porgy and Bess in its Broadway premier in 1935 and again in 1942-43. The International Movie Database (IMDb) lists a number of credits, as does the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB).

After a varied and successful career in the arts, Rosamond Johnson died of a heart condition on November 11, 1954 in his home on West 162 Street in New York City. Besides being a talented and accomplished musician, he worked to educate African-American musicians and pioneered the musical acceptance and recognition of African-American art forms. Although he is not as well known as his brother, James Weldon Johnson, he deserves equal recognition for his varied achievements.

1. James Weldon Johnson's autobiography, Along This Way. p. 149. (reference to "Shout Songs" & the quote in the image above]

2. From the Library of Congress website:

Bibliography (in addition to Footnotes above):

1. Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University website, biographical overview: http://webtext.library.yale.edu/xml2html/Music/jrj-d.htm

2. Internet exhibit called "Let It Resound," part of the Yale University library. http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/LetItResound/art_rmt_johnson_jr.html

3. College of New Jersey, student website by Melvina D. Fennell, Pierre Miller, and Michael McLaughlin. http://www.tcnj.edu/~fennell2/John%20Rosamond%20Johnson.htm

4. Website on famous Floridians, comprised by essays written in 2002 by Florida school children to celebrate African American History Month.
http://www.myflorida.com/myflorida/governorsoffice/black_history/rosamond_johnson.html (this material was recently removed and the link no long works.)

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Saturday, March 03, 2007

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

(Part II in a five-part series on the song Lift Every Voice and Sing written by James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson.)

The parents of James and Rosamond Johnson came to Jacksonville Florida from the Bahamas in 1866 after a hurricane destroyed their sponge fishing and dray businesses. James Sr. worked as the headwaiter in one Jacksonville’s fine resort hotels. His wife, Helen Louise Dillet Johnson, taught elementary school. In fact, she was the first female African-American public school teacher in Florida. The importance she placed on achievement and public service undoubtedly came from the example set by her father, who served in the House of Assembly in the Bahamas for 30 years. I relate the Johnson family background to illustrate the values and social climate within their family. The Johnson boys had educated and successful parents. They lived privileged lives for African-Americans of their time.

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871. He attended the Stanton Public School where his mother taught, and upon graduation he went on to study at Atlanta University. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1894, he returned to Jacksonville and to become principal of the Stanton Public School. He must not have found that position entirely satisfying because he was involved in other endeavors during his entire tenure as principal. In 1895, James founded the Daily American, a newspaper devoted to reporting on issues pertinent to the black community. Despite the long hours he devoted to the paper, it was not a financial success and after a year he gave up the effort. However, the Daily American drew the attention of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, who supported James in various ways later in his life. After the demise of the paper, James studied law and became the first African American to be admitted to the Florida bar through open examination. And all of this while holding down a full time job as public school principal!

James and Rosamond started their musical collaboration in 1898 when Rosamond returned to Jacksonville to teach music. Their first work was a comic opera called Toloso that satirized American imperialism after the Spanish-American War. Though Toloso was never produced, its songs were later used in Broadway musicals and it introduced the Johnsons to many influential people in show business, including Oscar Hammerstein and their future partner, Bob Cole, an African-American lyricist, composer and vaudeville performer. During their early collaboration when they were both living and working in Jacksonville, they made periodic trips to New York where their work was well received.

In 1902 the Johnson brothers left Jacksonville to seek their fortune on Broadway. They teamed up with Bob Cole and wrote musical comedies that were produced on Broadway with an all-black cast. They also wrote more than 200 popular songs in which their goal was to “elevate the lyrical sophistication of Negro songs.”

Perhaps writing on a regular basis is what aroused James’s interest in studying English at Columbia University. He was awarded a Ph.D. in 1906. It is remarkable that he was able to pursue a successful Broadway musical career while earning a doctorate. But he did. With one foot in the glitzy world of show business and the the other in the academic scene at Columbia, James met many influential leaders of the day. All were impressed with his high energy, his keen mind, and his many talents.

Through his friendship with Charles Anderson, a black Republican leader and close friend of Booker T. Washington, James became interested in foreign service. After his graduation from Columbia in 1906, he received and accepted an appointment to the United States consulate in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909 he was transferred to Nicaragua, where he met the beautiful Grace Neil, daughter of a wealthy New York real estate broker. They were married in 1910.

His consulate assignments allowed James to devote time to his writing. During his years in the Foreign Service (1906–1913) he wrote much poetry and worked on a novel called The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man which was published in 1912. He returned to New York in 1913 and continued to have an active literary life, publishing editorials, fiction, as well as poetry.

In 1916 he became field secretary of the NAACP, an organization which was then only seven years old. During his four years as field secretary, Johnson increased the organization’s membership from 9,000 to 90,000, a remarkable accomplishment. In 1920 he was appointed executive director and he headed the organization’s fight for racial equality for the next ten years. In 1930 he retired, and spent the next eight years writing and teaching.

Johnson’s creative and influential life came to a sudden end on June 26, 1938 when his car was hit by a train near his summer home in Maine. More than 2000 people attended his funeral, a tribute to his accomplishments and to his wide scope of influence.


1. Modern American Poetry website, owned and maintained by the Department of English at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2000). Edited by Cary Nelson. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/johnson/life.htm

2. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections website, owned and maintained by the University of South Carolina. http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/amlit/johnson/johnson.html

3. University of Pennsylvania website - Excerpt from the book called Before Harlem, The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I by Marcy S. Sacks http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/toc/14294.html

4. National Portrait Gallery website, Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/harmon/johnharm.htm

5. Jazz Roots website by Thomas L. Morgan. This site provides an overview of jazz musicians and other historical information about regarding jazz from 1905 – 1920. http://www.jass.com/c&j.html

6. Academy of American Poets website. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/72

7. NAACP website. http://www.naacp.org/about/history/levas_history/

8. BlackPressUSA.com archives. http://www.blackpressusa.com/history/archive_essay.asp?NewsID=810&Week=26

9. Poet's Corner on the Gale Group Free Resources website. http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/poets/bio/johnson_j.htm

10. James Weldon Johnson's portrait above is by Laura Wheeler Waring. Oil on canvas, 1943. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement