Modernism Monday: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” John Rosamond Johnson, with words by James Weldon Johnson

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Today we mark the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so I thought it appropriate to focus on this piece.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has come to be known as the Black National Anthem.  The words come from a poem written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899, a pioneer in the civil rights movement and an early leader in the NAACP.  Johnson wrote the poem as an introduction to Booker T. Washington at an event celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  Johnson’s brother, John, set the poem to music in 1905.  The words are monumentally powerful and the melody is gorgeous, which is why I include two versions here.  The first one, above, is sung by Leontyne Price (music starts at 3:32) and adheres to the written melody and time signature.  The second one, below, is sung by Ray Charles, and, well, doesn’t adhere to much, but is just so joyous.

Today is a good day to remember that our great Republic is an ever-evolving project which it is our duty, to each other and to those who came before us, to continually perfect.  In the words of Dr. King, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Lyrics at the bottom, as per usual.

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening 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 till victory is won.

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

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

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