To kick off Black History Month, it is fitting that we rise and sing the Black National Anthem.
Most of you are aware of the political controversies that swirl around the United States’ national anthem, and you know the words. But if you are a black American of a certain age, you may have been raised to sing our anthem—in school, in church, or at community events. It has come a long way since its beginnings as the poem Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson, and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in 1900.
He described its genesis:
A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.
The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s, the only anthem I had ever heard was the national one, sung at my almost all-white school, P.S. 138. My parents’ leftist friends had debates about singing it—or saluting the flag, though I didn’t dare make waves about it in assembly.
We left New York in 1957 to move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my dad had gotten a job teaching at Southern University, an HBCU. For the first time in my life, I attended an all-black grade school. It was a campus “lab school” for the children of staff and faculty, which trained student teachers. First day of class, we rose, saluted the flag, and then the students and teachers began to sing. There was no “Oh, say can you see.” There was, “Lift every, voice and sing … Till earth and heaven ring … Ring with the harmonies of Liberty ...” and I was confused and embarrassed to stand there silently. After it ended, I asked one of the student teachers what the song was. She looked at me, surprised, and said, “That’s our anthem. The Negro National Anthem.“
When I went home that afternoon I told my mom what had happened and to my surprise, she recited the words of the song, and then sang it. She told me that they always sang it at West Virginia State College, the HBCU she had graduated from. Somehow, she had forgotten to teach it to me.
Since that time, after decades of the civil rights movement and the influence of the Black Power Movement, it has come to be known as the “Black National Anthem.”
Every HBCU choir and glee club across the U.S. has Lift Every Voice as part of its repertoire.
This performance of Lift Every Voice and Sing by the HBCU 105 Voice Choir was breathtaking! It was performed as the finale number of their annual conference performance in Washington, DC on September 18, 2011 at the JF Kennedy Center.
105 Voices Of History
The 105 Voices Of History is a Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) Choir National Initiative created to promote diversity in America's national venues for the Arts. It provides a National Platform to increase the exposure of all HBCUs to diverse audiences and its many constituents, from corporate America to the youngest students, who will be attracted by the Choir's performances to pursue higher education. A National Choir Initiative provides the HBCUs a National Voice to increase their visibility of the valued talents.
The Thurgood Marshal College Fund sponsored the 105 Black Voices Of History Concert on September 18 at the Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center. The event featured one student from each of the 105 HBCUs.
James Weldon Johnson was one of the key figures in the history of civil rights struggles in the U.S., and was a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which adopted Lift Every Voice as the “Negro National Anthem” in 1919.
The Root produced this video about its history:
Most people remember when they first heard it. Perhaps it was elementary school. Church. A college graduation or special family occasion. For more than 100 years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (or “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”) has been a staple musical celebration of black excellence and pride in finding ways to survive (and thrive) in America.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
By James Weldon Johnson
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.
By the time of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the use of the word “Negro” to describe us as a group was questioned during the rise of what became known as the Black Power Movement.
Black Power was a revolutionary movement that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. It emphasized racial pride, economic empowerment, and the creation of political and cultural institutions. During this era, there was a rise in the demand for black history courses, a greater embrace of African culture, and a spread of raw artistic expression displaying the realities of African Americans.
The origin of the first use of the term Black Power varies. Its roots can be traced to author Richard Wright’s non-fiction work Black Power, published in 1954, and in 1965, the Lowndes County [Alabama] Freedom Organization (LCFO) used the slogan “Black Power for black people” for its political candidates. But, it was not until 1966, when Black Power made it into the mainstream. During the Meredith March against Fear in Mississippi, Student Nonviolent Coordinating (SNCC) Chairman Stokely Carmichael rallied marchers by chanting “we want Black Power.”
While most people of a certain age are aware of Woodstock, few people outside of the black community and R&B music aficionados remember Wattstax, the largest concert gathering of black Americans with 112,000 people in attendance, which took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 20, 1972.
The idea for Wattstax the concert was germinated in 1972 by Al Bell, the velvet-voiced co-owner and vice president of the Memphis-based Stax Records. Bell had recently opened Stax West as a Los Angeles presence for the record label, with an eye toward marketing Stax Records on the West Coast, developing regional talent and establishing a name in the television and film business. For several years since the 1965 riots in Watts, a black neighborhood in L.A., the community had put on a summer festival to commemorate the riots and to raise funds for community-based charities.
Bell wanted Stax West to be part of the annual Watts Summer Fest and began to plan for a few Stax acts to take the main stage in Will Rogers Park, but then he remembered that one of his artists, John KaSandra, had wanted to stage a "black Woodstock." Between Bell, KaSandra and Stax West executive Forrest Hamilton (son of jazz musician Chico Hamilton), the idea of Wattstax was born: a free concert in the Los Angeles Coliseum at which virtually every Stax act would play.
"Originally it was going to be called 'Woodstax,' " said Rob Bowman, a Toronto-based author of "Soulsville, USA," a history of Stax Records. "Thank God it wasn't." Bowman noted that although admission was originally going to be free, "for various contractual reasons they couldn't do that. So tickets were $1 apiece. They still gave away $30,000 in tickets to kids and people who couldn't afford them." The earnings from tickets, about $73,000, went to the charitable organizations associated with the Watts Summer Fest.
Throughout the hot August day of Wattstax, music fans danced, sang and celebrated in relative tranquility, while an all-black and unarmed security force stood watch. "This was the largest single gathering of African-American people outside of a religious or civil rights function," Bowman said. "It was very much a statement. 'We don't need the white police. The community can maintain itself, even 100,000 people, without guns.' "
One of my indelible memories of the concert film was Jesse Jackson introducing Kim Weston to sing the “Black National Anthem.” No more Negro: We were Black, and proud.
The sea of afros and fists raised in the air still gives me chills.
(Full film here)
Only a month after Wattstax, Ray Charles and the Raylettes appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and performed his jazzed up version in his imitable style.
From THE DICK CAVETT SHOW. September 18, 1972. The Raelettes are: Vernita Moss, Susaye Green, Mable John, Dorothy Berry, & Estella Yarbrough.
Fast forward over a decade, to 1985. Producer/composer/vocalist Deborah McDuffie pulled together an all-star cast to do an updated version (see the production background video at this link).
In 1985 Miller High Life asked me to come up with a "meaningful" project for Black History Month. I decided to arrange and record a celebratory contemporary version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I called good friends Al Green and Deniece Williams who agreed to sing the duet, backed by Patti Austin, Roberta Flack, Melba Moore and myself.
The band consisted of the studio musicians who made up John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd's Blues Brothers Band, along with other notable musicians, including the late great Yogi Horton and jazz legend Jon Faddis. One of my favorite arrangers, Leon Pendarvis penned the charts and was Musical Director.
Husband and wife actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee provided the voice-over narration for the commercials. Recorded in New York at Clinton Studios, it started out as a jingle but ended up a full length recording. This is the actual video from the recording session. Al was 8 hours late as usual, which is why it's dark when he's arriving. It's a fun-filled sneak peek inside what goes on (or used to go on) in the recording studio. Enjoy!
For the 90th anniversary of the song’s inception, Melba Moore produced a new version, with the help of her friends.
The New York Times reported:
Melba Moore went to Washington yesterday seeking wider recognition for a favorite song, ''Lift Every Voice and Sing.'' It was the song's 90th anniversary. Walter Fauntroy, the delegate to Congress from the District of Columbia, read the words into the Congressional Record and Miss Moore was honored at a reception where she played her new recording of it, sung with Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and others.
''It was written by James Weldon Johnson, who taught it to school children to sing on Lincoln's birthday,'' Ms.Moore said. ''The song stayed alive through the children, and became popular in churches and at community events. Now it has evolved into a symbolic black anthem.''
She recorded it for Capitol Records (profits to benefit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease) because ''young people need to know the good things they have in their own heritage, and be reminded of the sacrifices made for the rights we have now.''
Melba Moore's 1990 modern rendition of James Weldon Johnson and brother John Rosamond Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (first a poem by James and then set to music by John in 1900), with friends Louis Gossett, Jr., Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, Stephanie Mills, Take 6, Karen Clark Sheard, Jacky Clark Chisholm, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Freddie Jackson, Bobby Brown, Howard Hewett, BeBe & CeCe Winans, Terri Lyne Carrington, Gerald Albright and Norm Nixon, directed by Debbie Allen.
The Black National Anthem was embroiled in controversy in Denver, Colorado, in 2008.
“Black national anthem” causes stir at Hick speech
As Denver dignitaries gathered Tuesday for Mayor John Hickenlooper’s State of the City address, City Council President Michael Hancock introduced singer Rene Marie to perform the national anthem.
But that’s not what she did.
Instead, Marie performed the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which also is known as the “black national anthem.”
When she finished, the proceedings moved forward, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” was never performed. Councilman Charlie Brown took to local talk radio Tuesday afternoon to blast the lack of the nation’s anthem at the proceedings.
“There’s no replacement for the national anthem,” Brown said. “They should have sung it.”
“I was surprised,” said Hancock, who said he thought Marie should have cleared her plans with the mayor’s office in advance. By Tuesday afternoon he had received several telephone calls from citizens and the media. “But you go on with the show.”
Rene Marie sang Lift Every Voice to the music of The Star Spangled Banner.
Take a listen:
Singer Rene Marie performed the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which also is known as the "black national anthem," at Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's State of the City address.
Poetic License Raises A Star-Spangled Debate
Patriotism can mean different things to different people.
On July 1, 2008, jazz singer Rene Marie, flanked by elected officials and civil servants, calmly approached the microphone before Denver's State of the City address. She was there to perform a time-honored ritual: the singing of the national anthem.
But her arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner left residents divided. The melody was the same, but the words she chose were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899. They belong to the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Black National Anthem."
Marie is one of the rare artists today who invites comparison with Civil Rights-era singers Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln. Like them, her devotion to social issues has threatened her career, and raised questions about the role of the artist in society and what it means to be patriotic and African-American.
Two years ago, in the midst of white nationalist vitriol, Lift Every Voice served as an antidote to hate.
College's bell tower trolled white supremacist with black national anthem
As white supremacist leader Richard Spencer prepared to take the stage at the University of Florida, a concert of bells rang through campus leaving a poignant message of unity.
Laura Ellis, a music professor at the university, went up 11 flights of stairs in the school's carillon tower on Thursday to play "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the black national anthem.
"I think it was an appropriate time to play this song, to show our support for those who need it the most," Ellis told CNN.
On Thursday, the sound of bells echoed through campus, as police officers in riot gear, Spencer's supporters and anti-Spencer protesters carrying signs against fascism, neo-Nazis and white supremacy flooded the school.
"I think the UF students really unified against hate and presented an image of love that overwhelmed any negativity. I think it was super important and fitting to play that song today, and it left me feeling comforted and unified," said Elizabeth Parker, one of Ellis' students.
Younger generations are embracing our anthem with new stylings.
Committed, an a capella group from Oakwood University, an HBCU in Huntsville, Alabama, (the school where Take 6 was born), presents a mellifluous harmonic arrangement:
On that note … Let us march on till victory is won!