Lift Every Voice and Sing

J. Rosamond Johnson wrote the music for Lift Every Voice.
Photo: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
James Weldon Johnson referred to his song as the “Negro National Hymn.”
Photo: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
So, the white, middleclass Saint Paul Unitarians scored a point on Sunday. They played “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” We used to sing that in All Saints Catherdal School, in the church build in 1850 of stones used as ballast in slave ships in Saint Thomas, USVI. Lorna, the music teacher, playing the organ from the balcony, and a church full of students, descendants of slaves, belting it out. I had forgotten the name of the song, and don’t think that I have heard it since.
At the end of the service, I went through the line, was at the end of the line actually, and told the ministers about this, and how the kids in the Virgin Islands called it the “black national anthem.” The female minister replied “that’s because it is the black national anthem.”
And, I saw a coyote today. I was driving back from somewhere on the backside of the old Towne and Country Country Club. At first, I thought it was a dog, then I thought, wait, no it looks more like a wolf. But it couldn’t have been a wolf. Maybe a coyote? I turned around and came back to confirm. “It” was still standing there. A coyote.

2 thoughts on “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

  1. well, i was there also. singing the tune that means more here than there i thought. The students just hummed during the mass. the little kids anyway. sweating, open doors liturgical mass. crazy time vanishes. Dorothea

  2. I didn’t know you had Virgin Islands in your background; good friends of ours just moved to St. Croix this past fall & we hope to visit them someday.
    I also have a “Life Every Voice & Sing” story. (Two of them, actually.) In 1971, our 50% black high school held its first Black History Week. On the last day, in chapel, there came a point where a song was to be sung. After a minute or two of uncomfortable silence, the leader of the service came from backstage & announced that someone had stolen the record & started to sing himself.
    Immediately, every black student in the audience stood & sang, along with a handful of white students who were sitting among them (including me). (I had heard of of the Negro National Anthem before, but hadn’t heard it sung and didn’t e recognized it as such and I certainly couldn’t join in the singing; I just stood up because everyone around me did.)
    The fact that most white students did’t stand caused a huge ruckus, of course. They were, like me, ignorant of the song and it’s importance. Even if they had known, most of them would have thought it’d be disrespectful & pandering to have stood for what was obviously a black thing and wouldn’t have anyway, but they [we] were certainly bewildered at the deep anger that followed.
    It was a good thing the record was found in a bathroom a few minutes later or someone might have ended up hurt. (The record had been borrowed from a local radio station that played it every morning at 6 and had to be returned.)
    It was one of those electrifying things that happened during the 60s (which started with JFK’s inaugeration in ’61 and lasted ’til Nixon’s resignation in ’74, in my mind) that were terrifying at the time in their reality and brilliance.
    One other story: At my previous small Friends Meeting in Indiana, we had an elderly, somewhat mentally ill, Friend who came each week. “Lift Every Voice” was in our songbook that we sang from before meeting. Someone asked about it, but I was the only one who knew it. She therefore volunteered to play it on the piano to accompany the singing.
    Oh my God. You have never heard anything like it in your life. The piece isn’t easy or conventional in the first place, but her butchering of the notes, harmonies, rythmn, and lyrics is something I’d like to forget but will never be able to. And I’m talking about all four verses!
    In the stunned silence that immediately followed, one charitable Friend — surprisingly not a Minnesotan –remarked “Well, that was different.”
    The Library of America has a volume of James Weldon Johnson’s writings that you might be interested in reading. He had a kind of literary consciousness that no one has today and which seems kind of quaint to modern ears. But he wrote with power and conviction and moral force in a way that we need more of today.
    (Why does the preview show up as centered?)

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