Saturday, April 07, 2007

Musical Analysis of Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

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

In my internet research I didn’t find any material on the musical elements of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. That prompted me to do some analysis of my own, so in this post I will consider a few aspects of composition and songwriting. You may want to refer back to my introductory post on February 25, 2007 to review the song's text and listen to the music in the links found there.

The basic premise of good songwriting is that the music complement the words. One of the ways Rosamond Johnson uses musical elements to accentuate the words is by placing longer note values on important words or concepts. The opening phrase of the first verse illustrates this technique. Rosamond sends the first phrase of the song off to a running start by moving quickly through the first three words which have less relative importance, then remaining longer on the more important words he wants to highlight. The emphasized words get triple the time allotted to the preliminary words. Also note the placement of the emphasized words: both VOICE and SING fall on the downbeat, the strongest rhythmic beat in each measure. By contrast, the words of lesser importance precede the downbeat and are used as "pickup" notes.


In wordy passages Rosamond aligns the metrical value of the notes to speech rhythms as is done in opera recitatives. In this example, each monosyllabic word is given a separate note and all words have equal time value, much like the phrase would be spoken.

Full-of-the-faith-that-the-dark-past-has TAUGHT US

Another musical technique Rosamond employs is called word painting. In the opening phrase about LIFTING our VOICES, the pitch rises with each word in the phrase, moving stepwise up the scale.

Lift-ev-ry VOICE.

Later in the first verse is found this phrase:

let-our-re JOIC- ING RISE

On the word RISE the melody achieves the highest note yet heard in the song, an E above the piano’s middle C, illustrating a very effective use of word painting.

Looking at meter for a moment, we see that Rosamond uses a 6/8 time signature, a rolling dance meter which emphasizes the first and fourth beats of the measure.

1-2-3-4-5-6 1-2-3-4-5-6

The strong pulses fall on beats 1 and 4,creating a feeling of duple meter. Because this tune is heard in a slow “two,” the result is a walking tempo, not as strident as a march and with a lilt coming from the dance-like triple meter underpinning. Again, very appropriate for the tone of the words – not charging forward or lightly skipping, but walking steadily towards a goal.

Rosamond sets the song in a major key. We associate major keys with happy, positive emotion. In one brief phrase towards the end of the verse, Rosamond dips into a minor key, a darker and more brooding modality, but returns quickly again to major. This technique lends musical interest and variety, and gives the whole song more emotional credibility than if it was strictly in a major key. The harmonic tension between major and minor symbolizes the tensions described in the text – a determined optimism about the future despite a tragic past.

Rosamond's chords throughout the song fall in the same rhythm as stated in the melody. There are no frilly filler notes, arpeggiated chord patterns, no counter-melodies -- just strong chords placed directly on the melody’s rhythm. This technique once again indicates the strength of the sentiment expressed in the poem. In fact, Rosamond seems determined to allow nothing to lead our attention away from that sentiment, not even for a moment.

That’s probably enough analysis to illustrate some of the musical conventions that Rosamond used. The techniques I’ve described were applied with skill, and as a result they don’t draw attention to themselves but instead hold the words up for our consideration.

Although James Weldon Johnson’s words speak of African Americans’ past travails and current hopes for the future, these words speak to ALL Americans of the spiritual strength and dignity of those who were oppressed. In order not to be part of the continuing oppression and racism in our country today, I believe it is important that Anglo Americans try to see history from the African American point of view.

On her Speaking Truth to Power website, Vernellia Randall, Professor of Law and Director of the Academic Excellence Program at University of Dayton School of Law, recalled attending segregated schools in Texas until she graduated from high school in 1966. At each of the three schools she attended, the day began with The Lord’s Prayer, the National Anthem, and the Negro National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. When I first programmed this hymn to be sung on Martin Luther King Sunday at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, I hoped that James Weldon Johnson’s words would enable our mostly white Mennonite congregation to catch a glimpse of what Randall must have felt when day after day she prayed to be forgiven of her sins as she forgave those who sinned against her, then sang the national anthem of the country that segregated her, followed immediately with the Negro National Anthem that offered her the hope that things could be -- indeed, would be -- different.

As Anglos in America, who by definition are members of the dominant class, let us not be afraid to face the shameful history of our country. Let us honor the memory of people like the Johnson brothers who helped all of us to find a way out of those awful times. Let us continue their efforts to achieve full equality for all.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.

And all the people said?

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
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