In recognition of Black History Month, it is fitting to highlight one of the most powerful hymns in American history: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song’s lyricist, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), was a writer and civil rights activist who held leadership in the NAACP. At the turn of the 20th century and before the founding of the NAACP, Johnson taught at a segregated public school in Jacksonville, Florida. While teaching at the school in 1900, he was presented with the opportunity to pen lyrics for a song to be sung by a student chorus at a program celebrating Lincoln’s birthday. He engaged the talents of his younger brother, musician J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), to set his new lyrics to music. Entire blog posts should be devoted to each brother, as each one had a fascinating career full of meaningful contributions to music, theater, and social justice; this post, however, will focus on the story of their most famous song. Johnson described the process of writing the lyrics in his 1933 autobiography, Along This Way:
“I got my first line: Lift ev’ry voice and sing. Not a startling line; but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines:
Sing a song full of the faith the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
The spirit of the poem had taken hold of me. I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond. In composing the other two stanzas I did not use pen and paper. While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth on the front porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating…I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet’s ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment – that sense of serene joy – which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences.”
The school performance came and went, and the next year the Johnson brothers moved to New York City where they collaborated with Bob Cole (1868-1911), writing hundreds of songs and producing shows for the Broadway stage. According to James Weldon Johnson, the school children from Jacksonville continued singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sharing it with other schools and communities; within two decades, the song had achieved widespread popularity throughout the South and had been copyrighted by publishers as well. Various arrangements were published, and the Library of Congress has new arrangements digitized and available for download: a choral score registered for copyright in 1900, and an arrangement for solo voice and piano registered in 1921.
The Library’s 1900 sheet music for 4-part chorus and piano is titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing (National Hymn for the Colored People of America)” and is “respectfully dedicated to Booker T. Washington.” Some sources report that Washington was present at the first performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; while the music is dedicated to him, Johnson’s memoir makes no mention of Washington’s presence at the event. Though this first publication featured the subtitle of “National Hymn,” it wasn’t until 1919 that the NAACP adopted the song as an official rallying cry for civil rights, dubbing the song the “Negro National Anthem,” (the subtitle is published on the 1921 piano-vocal sheet music, illustrated below).
The Library of Congress recognized two recordings of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the 2016 National Recording Registry: a 1923 rendition by the Manhattan Harmony Four (one of the last discs issued by the short-lived, Black-owned, and Harlem-based Black Swan Company), and a 1990 recording of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Melba Moore, accompanied by Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker, and other artists who collectively sought to revive the song and bring its power to a new generation. To read more about the recordings, find additional articles, an interview with Melba Moore, and sound clips on the 2016 National Recording Registry information page. Countless artists have offered fabulous renditions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” from Ray Charles’s 1972 recording, to opera singer Denyce Graves’s performance at the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, to Beyoncé’s 2018 epic Coachella performance.
The Johnson brothers’ stirring song has strengthened communities in prayer and protest, pain and uplift. That a hymn composed for children to sing at a school celebration in 1900 could turn into an anthem of justice performed for well over a century at the national level is remarkable; the story and life of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” should encourage us all to keep channeling our experience into art and sharing it with our children – you never know who is writing the next music of a movement, or who may carry your words forward to new generations.