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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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Of all that the Johnson brothers did, it is one song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” that has won them enduring fame. In 1935, James Weldon wrote, “The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.” “Lift Ev’ry Voice” is sometimes jazzed up. It is best when it is stately, soulful, and majestic.

Leontyne Price, the soprano, made probably the finest recording of it. It is on her album of patriotic songs and hymns, God Bless America, recorded in 1982 (and still in print). “Lift Ev’ry Voice” follows “The Star-Spangled Banner” — an order you can be sure Miss Price intended. She is a fierce, One America patriot.

The second verse of the song goes,

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,
’Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

It is sometimes remarked that white Americans know little of Black America. And that is no doubt true. The country is in important ways segregated, although this might not be recognized by white Americans, because blacks are the minor­ity and whites not. How often do white Americans listen to black talk radio? Black Americans know about the majority culture — that is unavoidable. But you can live your whole life without knowing about the minority culture.

White Americans have now been given a window into Black America, by a surprising means: the candidacy of Senator Obama. Why surprising? Because Obama’s roots in Black America are fairly shallow, or so you might claim. His father was from Kenya, and his mother is white. But in this political year of 2008, white Americans are learning things, not all of them pleasant. Think of what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, taught the country.

Did it shock you to hear that the U.S. government invented AIDS for the purpose of decimating black people? This view is widely held among black Americans — not just by crazies and demagogues, but by respectable folk, too. Yet there is much that is golden to learn as well. And one might start with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Not to pat myself on my good liberal back, but I contributed a mite, years ago, when I was a teenager. I was a summer-camp counselor in Illinois. This was Camp Wa-ta-ga-mie, a.k.a. Camp Want My Mommy. Every day, we had a flag raising, accompanied by a patriotic song: the national anthem, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” etc.

When it was my turn to lead the ceremony, I introduced “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” I didn’t pull a switcheroonie — the choice of song was the counselor’s (as I remember). And why did I make this choice? Well, social reasons aside — what a great song! It ought to be a staple in the general American repertory.

And this is where Rene Marie missed her chance. If she was going to usurp an event — which she did — she might have sung “Lift Ev’ry Voice” as written, music and words. One without the other is like Schiller without Beethoven (sort of).

Turn your thoughts to next January, for a moment. Presidential inaugurations al­ways have music: the national anthem, of course, and other songs. Jessye Norman sang “Simple Gifts” at Reagan’s second. If disaster occurs and Obama is elected, why not have “Lift Ev’ry Voice” at the inauguration? But the new president might be nervous about hints of separatism. It would be even better to have the song at a McCain inauguration.

As a rule, “Lift Ev’ry Voice” might be treated like a state flag: flying under the national flag, the greater above the lesser, the lesser under the greater. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. But “Lift Ev’ry Voice” is a precious part of our patrimony.

And the third and final verse is the best:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has 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.

“True to our native land”? J. W. John­son meant America, of course — no other place. This song is full of patriotism, as well as beauty and truth. “Black national anthem” it may be called; but it is an American anthem, and, more than that, a song for all the world. The best tend to be like that.

– This article first appeared in the August 4, 2008, issue of National Review.



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