Text: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) Tune: J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)
1. 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.
2. Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening 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.
3. 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.
(People are asking about this song since it has been sung at NFL games over the weekend. Its history is important for us to know.)
James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, were part of the movement called the Harlem Renaissance which flourished in the 1920s in Harlem and around the country. During the post-WWI migration of African Americans north out of the south, many were attracted to large cities of the north. Many settled in Harlem. From that movement came some of our greatest African American musicians, poets and artists, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Ethel Waters, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Roland Hayes, William Johnson and many many more.
But this song was written before that movement, at the turn of the century, by the Johnsons. It is among their first works. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, to a mother with a Bahamian background, both of the Johnsons had stellar educations—their mother, a teacher and musician, taught them to love poetry and music. James attended the Edwin M. Stanton School and then graduated in 1894 from Atlanta University, a historically black college where he received a rigorous classical education. Later, he studied law and became the first African American admitted to the bar in Florida.
He and his brother moved to New York in 1901 where they worked on musical theater productions. Johnson was also involved in politics as a Republican. He became President of the Colored Republican Club in 1904 and worked against such movements as the KKK. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt named him consul in Venezuela and then Nicaragua where he was central to bringing peace after some unrest. During this time he wrote poetry and an autobiography. In 1916 he became a leader in the NAACP where he worked for justice organizing peaceful protests against racism during a time of much unrest in the country. He was killed in a car accident.
When I was a teenager in the 1950s I bought myself a used hi-fi with the money I had earned picking beans in the fields outside of Salem. I had three LP records, The Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe, Bolero by Maurice Ravel, and God’s Trombones, a collection of poetic sermons by Johnson. In it Johnson tells a folksy version of the creation story from Genesis and several other poems. I must have listened to it hundreds of times. When I was on the LBW text committee 1973-1976 we realized we had to include hymns from the African American tradition and this one was among the ones we considered necessary. Most people who used the book did not know where it came from or that it was known as the Black National Anthem, something we are hearing about again.
It is a text that refers back to the Exodus and the pilgrimage away from slavery and Egypt, a common theme in spirituals. When it was written it was understood to be deeply Christian. Usage may change how a song is received and known. But it is important to know the story of the song and understand where it came from. As the final stanza prays, keep us faithful to God and not to our own devices. A prayer we should all pray at any time.
J. Rosamond Johnson, James younger brother, wrote the tune at this time. He had studied music with his mother and at school. Later he attended the New England Conservatory of Music and also studied in London briefly. He wrote Broadway plays with Bob Cole and had a distinguished career as a musician/composer and actor in
the theater, singing the part of Frazier in the first performances of Porgy and Bess.
The hymn was first performed in 1900 with a mass choir of the Stanton School which his brother and he had attended. It was first recorded in 1923 by the male gospel group, Manhattan Harmony Four. It was more and more used after it appeared in Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. In the 1970s, dozens of main line Protestant hymnals included it. Melba Moore recorded it in 1990 and it became part of the Rhythm and Blues repertoire.
The third stanza was used almost verbatim by Rev. Joseph Lowery in his benediction at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Now many are hearing it for the first time at the NFL games. There are hundreds of performances of it on Youtube. Here are a few.
Tuskagee University Gold Voices Concert Choir
The Spelman College Glee Club
The Hampton University Choir