Politics & Policy

Right Song, Wrong Place

James Weldon Johnson (Corbis)
‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ makes the news

‘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.

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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