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.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song with words by the poet James Weldon Johnson and music by J. Rosamond Johnson, has been much in the public eye of late. On January 20th, the song widely known as the Black National Anthem was sung across the campus of Howard University as one of their most distinguished alums, Kamala Harris, was sworn in as the first woman and person of color to hold the office of Vice President of the United States. Around the same time, South Carolina Representative and House Majority Whip James Clyburn announced he would be introducing legislation to designate “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as an official national hymn. “To make it a national hymn, I think, would be an act of bringing the country together,” said Clyburn. “It would say to people, ‘You aren’t singing a separate national anthem, you are singing the country’s national hymn.’ The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”
The story of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” began in 1899 with a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, an important literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance who would go on to serve as a U.S. diplomat under Teddy Roosevelt, the president of the NAACP, and the first Black professor hired at New York University. Later that year, the poem was set to music by Johnson’s younger brother J. Rosamond Johnson, a composer and performer who was active on the vaudeville circuit and in the musical theater world of the early 1900s. The song was first performed at by 500 Black schoolchildren for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in 1900 at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, a segregated school where James Weldon Johnson was serving as principal at the time. The song gained immense popularity in the ensuing years, and it was designated by the NAACP as the Black National Anthem in 1919.
While it can be easy to take them for granted, anthems are an important part of forming communal identity. The political scientist Benedict Anderson has argued that “there is in [the singing of national anthems] an experience of simultaneity.” He termed this “unisonance,” a sort of sonic realization of the ties – real or imagined – that bind together communities. In a similar vein, the music historian J. Martin Daughtry argues that unlike flags or other symbols, anthems are “performed, and usually performed collectively,” making them powerful reminders of a group’s “ideologies and collective self-images.”
James Weldon Johnson in a 1932 photograph by Carl Van Vechten
At top: Augusta Savage’s 1939 sculpture The Harp, which was inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
J. Rosamond Johnson in a 1933 photograph by Carl Van Vechten
Anthems, then, don’t just describe or represent communities – they help to define those communities, to quite literally give voice to a group’s values and beliefs. This brings us back to those Jacksonville schoolchildren in 1900. Education, especially of young children, was a major focus of Black organizations and institutions in the early 1900s. Much of that focus was on the building of schools, schools where the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a common occurrence. Scholar Imani Perry writes that it “served multiple purposes: to educate, to inspire, to nurture collective identities, and to bolster a deep sense of worth in blackness.” In other words, the song functioned in exactly the same way as a national anthem. It should come as no surprise, then, that the NAACP designated it as the Black National Anthem, or that, as Perry points out, the song carried such special meaning for Civil Rights activists who were raised on its message.
As the case of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” makes clear, America doesn’t have one national anthem. There are, in fact, many songs that have helped to define what America means. And whether a song carries the official badge of anthem-dom matters far less than the meanings inscribed onto it by those who sing it and strive to live out its message. Representative Clyburn’s legislation, then, will only serve to codify what so many have known for so long: whether you call it a hymn or anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is already a national song.
In its century-plus existence, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been performed and recorded countless times. This week’s playlist includes just a few examples.
The oldest recording on the list is by the Manhattan Harmony Four. It was released in 1923 by Black Swan Records, a Black-owned record label based in Harlem in the early 1920s. In 2016, this version selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion on the National Recording Registry, an honor reserved for those recordings deemed to have “cultural, artistic and historical importance to American society and the nation’s audio heritage.” It was joined at that time on the Registry by a much later recording of the song, the 1990 version by singer Melba Moore. For this modernized version, Moore was joined by an all-star cast that included Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, and Dionne Warwick.
In the realm of “classical” music, there’s the arrangement for voice and orchestra by William Grant Still, a pioneering Black composer whose many firsts include being the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra and the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra. Then there’s Jessie Montgomery’s 2014 work Banner, a tribute to the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The work, which is scored for string quartet and chamber orchestra, is Montgomery’s attempt to answer the question: “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multi-cultural environment?” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is heard prominently as the primary basis for the middle section of the work. Rounding out the playlist is Beyoncé, whose live version was performed at Coachella in 2018 and released in 2019 on Homecoming: The Live Album.
– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Director of Audience Experience and Engagement, Music Academy of the West
discerning – a musically-informed audience
appreciative – an audience that recognizes the artistic worth and merit of varying works
adventurous – an audience that is willing to be challenged and to try new things
These carefully chosen words of the Music Academy’s mission statement are at the core of how we approach our relationship with our audience. It is in that spirit of discernment, appreciation, and adventurousness that we offer these playlists for you to explore on your own. Be sure to check out our previous playlists.
Imani Perry, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (2018).
J. Martin Daughtry, “Russia’s New Anthem and the Negotiation of National Identity,” Ethnomusicology 47, No. 1 (2003).
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (2006).
Sandra Jean Graham, “Johnson, J(ohn) Rosamond,” in Grove Music Online.