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Right Song, Wrong Place
‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ makes the news

James Weldon Johnson (Corbis)

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‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is one of the best songs in the entire American treasury. It is part gospel song, part traditional hymn, and part anthem. It was written in 1900 — and became known as the “Negro national hymn,” or the “Negro national anthem.” Today, of course, people refer to it as the “black national anthem,” or possibly the “African-American national anthem.” The last person to say “Negro” was Thurgood Marshall, who did it till the day he died, in 1993.

In any case, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” managed to make national news in early July. Here’s what happened.

The mayor of Denver gives a “State of the City” speech. Apparently, they have a somewhat grand view of themselves in Denver. And they invited a local jazz singer and actress to sing the national anthem. Her name is Rene Marie.

Well, she pulled a switcheroonie on them — that is her own language: “I pulled a switcheroonie on them.” Instead of singing the national anthem, she sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” But not really: It was quite strange. She sang the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice” to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She effected a melding of the two.

The audience must have been mighty confused. There they were, hands on hearts, listening to a familiar tune, but to unfamiliar words — unfamiliar, that is, to the white people present. Black people, most of them, probably figured out what was happening.

After the event, a ruckus took place. The mayor, John Hickenlooper, was piqued that he had been deceived, not to mention upstaged. (Everyone talked about the sing­ing, not the speech.) “We all respect artistic license and support freedom of expression,” he said. But, at the State of the City event, “making a personal substitution for the national anthem was not an option.” Quite so.

Rene Marie, for her part, was unbowed. “I am an artist,” she said. And, as such, she has a need to express herself artistically — she will not ask anyone’s permission to do so. Moreover, she does not “feel like an American.” And, at some point, she decided not to sing the national anthem again.

The lady is black, I should note. And, from the lengthy remarks on her website, she is an interesting and thoughtful wo­man. Full of herself, but interesting and thoughtful. Obviously, she is torn by age-old questions of race and identity.

The Denver affair quickly became part of the presidential campaign, with the Dem­ocratic nominee, Barack Obama, forced to declare, “We have only one national anthem.”

That other anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” was written by two brothers: James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. The former wrote the words, the latter the music. They did so, these 108 years ago, for a Lincoln birthday celebration, in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. Here are the words to the first verse:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
’Til 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 ’til victory is won.

James Weldon Johnson was one of the most remarkable men in American his­tory — and certainly one of the most versatile. He was a poet, a politician, a lawyer, an anthologist, a diplomat, an educator, a novelist, and, yes, more. He took part in the Harlem Renaissance and was himself a definition of “Renaissance man.” He did more in his 67 years — 1871 to 1938 — than it seems possible to do.

Toward the end of his life, Johnson helped Ignatz Waghalter, a Jewish refugee, found the American Negro Orchestra. Johnson wanted black Americans to have the best of Western civilization, and to contribute to it. And there is no question that he regarded himself, and all blacks, as part and parcel of America. This fact is reflected in the titles of some of his books: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), Negro Americans, What Now? (1934). Johnson was as American as anyone, and more than most.

His brother, J. Rosamond, was less dazzling than he, but impressive in his own right. In addition to composing, he sang: He appeared in the original Porgy and Bess. And he advanced spirituals by the arrangements he made of them. For example, Marian Anderson used to sing his arrangement of the spiritual about finding lost sheep.



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