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
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