Thursday, February 7, 2019

The NRR Project #55: 'Life Ev'ry Voice and Sing,' the "Black National Anthem"

More than 100 years after its composition, 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing' still has the power to provoke.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”
Words by James Weldon Johnson/Music by John Rosamond Johnson
Composed: 1905

First Recorded: April 1923
Performers: Manhattan Harmony Four

Recorded: 1990
Lead Performer: Melba Moore

(Recorded: 2011
Vocalist: Rene Marie

This song, long known informally as “the Black National Anthem,” resonates so strongly in the African-American part of our culture that it merits examination through the lens of three different performances. (The first two here are referenced in the Registry citation, but the third is for me most compelling, emotionally and historically.)

It started as a poem, written by James Weldon Johnson, in 1900, recited on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1900, by 500 schoolchildren in greeting to a visiting Booker T. Washington. Five years later, his brother set the words to a ringing, stately melody. By 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted it as the “Negro National Anthem.”

The lyrics merit examination:

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 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. 

Now this is an anthem! (In fact, Johnson himself referred to it as a hymn, as he thought the descriptor “anthem” was too divisive.) Phrased in King James style, it states the plain, bitter truth about everything African-Americans suffered. In fact, many times the second verse, with its mentions of the “chastening rod,” “hope unborn,” and “the blood of the slaughtered,” is omitted. It’s not just a prayer, but a dialogue with God, and in that bears resemblance to Jewish prayer. It implies an active and dynamic relationship with the powers above. Its frankness commands attention.

The original recording by the Manhattan Harmony Four is robust and stately. The second version referenced by the Registry is a vastly more dynamic and sweeping version, led by Melba Moore, but including over a dozen prominent R & B and gospel singers. (This was the age of charity/advocacy songs recorded by roving gangs of celebrities.)

The third version is for me the most affecting. It’s a simple, straightforward approach by jazz great Rene Marie, accompanied only by piano and drum set, and she sets Johnson’s words to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is what she did on July 1, 2008, to open Denver’s mayor’s annual State of the City address. By imposing the lyrics on a national anthem so familiar we sometimes take it for granted, Marie recontextualized the words of Johnson’s poem and made listeners think, pointing out the cognitive dissonance of “Banner”s message about “the land of the free” that necessitated the concept of a second, black national anthem in the first place.

Many were offended by Marie’s performance, and her unapologetic attitude about it. Few like to have their awareness ruffled unless they are prepared for it. The singer defended herself ably, reminding interviewers that Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the National Anthem, was a slave-owner and abolitionist-fighting lawyer. “As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist,” she wrote.

And, in the midst of my research, I found myself standing and singing the song with the crowd at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. For better and for worse, its words are just as current as they were when they were coined more than 100 years ago

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five plays ‘Wild Cat Blues.’

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