February is Black History Month and an opportunity to consider one of the most important hymns to the Black and African American church, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," no. 519 in The United Methodist Hymnal.
Words: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Music: J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)
February 12, 2005, marks the 105th anniversary of the composition and first performance of the hymn, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," by brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. The date is no accident, since the hymn's first performance was in Jacksonville, Florida (February 12, 1900), in a children's musical celebration of the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809).
James Weldon Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, were born in Jacksonville, Florida. They were active in musical and educational endeavors in their hometown. James Weldon studied law and in 1897 became the first African American admitted to the Florida bar. He served under two American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, as consul in Venezuela (1906-09) and then Nicaragua (1909-12). He later became Field Secretary (1916-20) and Executive Secretary (1920-30) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1930 James Weldon became professor of creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville.
J. Rosamond taught music in the Jacksonville public schools, eventually becoming music supervisor for that city's "colored" schools. He was also a Baptist church organist and choir director and taught music at the Baptist Academy in Jacksonville. It was during one of these school musical programs that "Lift Every Voice" received its first performance.
In 1901 the brothers went to New York and became active in vaudeville, producing a string of successful songs and musicals prior to World War I. They collaborated on and published over 200 songs for the Broadway musical theatre, as well as two books of American Negro spirituals in 1925 and 1926. In addition to his collaborations with his brother, James Weldon was a prolific author and poet, and his works include two volumes, Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917) and God's Trombones (1927). James Weldon was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement, a group of African American writers and artists in New York City. J. Rosamond was also a professional actor and played a leading role in the original production of Porgy and Bess in 1935.
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" is regarded by many African Americans as a "national anthem" because of its profound association with the struggle for equality and civil rights in the USA. It is taught at an early age in African American homes, schools, and churches, and is often sung at civic, cultural, and patriotic gatherings. The hymn is being included in an increasing number of denominational and independent hymnals and songbooks, including The United Methodist Hymnal (number 519) and Songs of Zion (Abingdon Press, 1981, number 32). It is worth remembering that the 1921 copyright date of the Edward B. Marks Music Co., which is included in many of these hymnals, has expired, and the hymn is now in the public domain. Arrangements of the hymn, however, such as the one by Verolga Nix in Songs of Zion (number 210) are still protected by copyright.
Meter. The United Methodist Hymnal assigns the meter for this hymn as Irregular, true only in the sense that it may be in a meter unique to this hymn, that is, a non-standard meter. It actually falls into the pattern of 22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199; a design which yields a rather standard and simple AABA form.
Form. The text is strophic, without repetitions of text or refrain. The rhyme scheme is abcbddee.
Content and Mood. There are three stanzas presented in a very intentional order. It would be a great injustice to eliminate any of these stanzas. Stanza one is a call to freedom and rejoicing, if not born out of the actual experience of African Americans, then out of their joy of faith and the promise of hope they have in being faithful people of God. Stanza two turns more serious, even somber, in its biographical depiction of slavery, with unpleasant and graphic description of the "bitter chastening rod," a time when "hope unborn had died," "a way that with tears has been watered," and the "path thru the blood of the slaughtered." Stanza three, although a prayer, is also a lament. Even the Psalmist rarely achieves such a sense of desolation and suffering.
The mood, then, moves from celebration through a gloomy description of circumstances into an intense expression of longing for God to remain ever present. God is there even in the "weary years" and "silent tears." It is a prayer for God to "keep us forever in the path," not the path of suffering and oppression, but the path of God's grace, mercy, promise, and love. It is a prayer that, no matter how harsh our circumstances, no matter how much we suffer, we remain in God's embrace.
This spirit of ultimate optimism, even in the face of such suffering, is further reflected in the last two phrases of each stanza. As the mood of the stanzas becomes increasingly dark, increasingly intense, each stanza concludes with a positive affirmation of trust and hope.
It is significant that there is not even one appearance in this hymn of a singular pronoun — all are plural. The hymn is a shared expression of an entire people with common sufferings, common strivings, and common hopes. And this accounts for the importance of this hymn to African Americans of all faiths, and for its being regarded as a national anthem.
If the music is divorced from the text, one can easily imagine it serving as festive music for a marching band at a football game's halftime show. The recurring patterns of triplets and dotted notes, the rise and fall of the melodic line, the harmonic cadences, the emotional peaks on the melodic high points, the melodic nature of the bass line, and the effective use of melodic chromaticism and secondary harmonic chords — all make for a highly varied musical treatment which does not lose its sense of unity. Melody, rhythm, harmony, and musical form all work together to bring out the meaning and emotional impact of the text. In the B section (the 14.14 meter phrases), where the text becomes its darkest and most intense, the music takes on a lowered chromatic quality and drops to its lowest pitch level, a wonderfully expressive device.
Suggestions for Use
Sing this hymn in worship on a Sunday in February. Inform the congregation of its history and relationship to the experience of African Americans, making use of a bulletin insert, a brief announcement before the hymn is sung, or perhaps as the subject of a sermon. It is both a biography and an expression of a race of people. Besides being a magnificent sacred hymn, it is an important historical document. It should be taught to, sung by, and remembered by all Americans.
Cleveland, J. Jefferson and Verolga Nix, eds. Songs of Zion. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981.
Smith, William Farley. Songs of Deliverance. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.