Friday, January 15, 2016

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing: The "Black National Anthem"

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The brothers James Weldon Johnson, an accomplished poet, and John Rosamond Johnson, a classically-trained musician, arranged dozens of slave songs ("Negro spirituals") and created one of the most enduring songs of American history:  Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing.  They premiered the song in 1900 at an event celebrating the life of Abraham Lincoln, but it quickly became a song of hope for the Civil Rights movement in the Twentieth Century and beyond.  It is now frequently called the "Black National Anthem."

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James Weldon Johnson was one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement that celebrated the experience and creativity of African-Americans.  During the Nineteenth Century, minstrel shows that traveled the country performing parodied and degrading "coon songs," and actors in blackface (black make-up with wide white lips) created stock, stereotyped characters.  White and black audiences alike saw African-Americans portrayed as ignorant, buffoonish, and servile.  Tthe Harlem Renaissance sought to reverse those stereotypes, among other goals.  Alain Locke's "New Negro" (1925) was proud of African-American culture, including the music.  By collecting and arranging spirituals, the brothers Johnson, like the Fisk Jubilee Singers before them, elevated African-American song to the status of high art.  "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" epitomizes that goal while also being inspiring -- and uplifting.

The song is in the public domain (no longer subject to copyright laws) and available through sources such as IMSLP.  (Click here to download the song as a .pdf)

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Though very religious in tone it is also very patriotic.  The final line is: "True to our God, true to our native land."  The lyrics inspire singers and listeners alike in the struggle for equal rights of citizenship in the United States.  The opening words have also become iconic, symbolizing the struggle for civil rights.  For example, it is quoted in the title of a book about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:  Lift Every Voice; the NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement by Patricia Sullivan:  E 185.5 .N276 S85 2009.

You can hear the song sung by American diva Leontyne Price via Naxos Music Library (Ball State Log-in Required): "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"

The complete lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
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 till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

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