Lift Every Voice and Sing

Saturday, June 20, 2020 by Rylin Erickson | Uncategorized

Our grande finale for this afternoon’s online concert is “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Written by a pair of incredibly talented, well respected siblings, James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson, this ode to hope and resilience was premiered by a choir of five hundred children in 1900, became the official song of the NAACP in 1919, and occupies a place of honor in American culture as the Black National Anthem. Just yesterday, representing almost every state in the U.S. as well as several other countries, thousands of people sang it together in an online forum in celebration of Juneteenth!

It is essential that the pieces we perform be firmly rooted in healthy soil. Many well known popular and folk songs are stained with prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Setting aside music we may have previously enjoyed but can no longer stomach after learning of its background or lyrics is important work. It is common to feel frustration or sorrow at the onset of this process, a small disappointment that obviously pales in comparison to the harm these contaminated works cause when they are presented anywhere outside of a history lesson and one which is swiftly replaced by the joy of accomplishing one small piece of an enormous project and by doing so moving into better alignment with our moral compass.

Luckily, there is no shortage of beloved songs created throughout our nation’s history that are worthy of a brighter spotlight. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a wonderful example, with its rhythmic pulse, strong word painting, and enduring significance. I loved singing this song in choirs growing up and was looking forward to performing it with students this summer in a little local parade. While the pandemic postponed that plan, the ongoing protests that are bringing racism to the forefront of mainstream awareness prompted me to introduce this anthem to all of my students without delay.

Our online format, which initially felt limiting, has been a profound invitation to dive both deeper and wider in our studies. We have listened to a wide variety of recordings, dissected various musical elements, discussed historical context, and brainstormed ways to effectively address injustice individually, as a community, and on a global scale. In these conversations, I was struck by the younger students’ clarity and wisdom, by the teens’ fierce rejection of the status quo and spirited vision for the future, by the adults’ openness and support, and by how well students of all ages noticed, responded to, and precisely articulated the song’s nuanced emotional timbre. 

If you are not yet familiar with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or would like to hear it again, check out our playlist below to listen to a diverse collection of recordings! This is a powerful anthem that seems to encourage interpretation and revisitation by being unusually adaptable to almost any tempo, register, and instrumentation. The words and music both exquisitely capture hope rising out of grief in a way that has resonated with listeners for 120 years and counting.

Whether this song is an old favorite or brand new to you, may it serve as a musical talisman as we each individually and collectively grapple with the realities of racial injustice.