With words by James Weldon Johnson and music by his brother John, Lift Every Voice and Sing was written at the turn of the 20th century, a time when Jim Crow laws were beginning to take hold across the South and Blacks were looking for an identity. In a way that was both gloriously uplifting and starkly realistic, it spoke to the history of the dark journey of African Americans. “It allows us to acknowledge all of the brutalities and inhumanities and dispossession that came with enslavement, that came with Jim Crow, that comes still today with disenfranchisement, police brutality, dispossession of education and resources,” Shana Redmond — author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora — says. “It continues to announce that we see this brighter future, that we believe that something will change.”
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
I came to Lift Every Voice and Sing later in life. But when I did I had the privilege of learning the song and its history directly from one of the foremost scholars in African American gospel music, the late Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, at a 1992 music conference in North Carolina. Dr. Boyer was the general editor of 1993’s Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal for the Episcopal Church. I was fortunate to be a part of a group that he led in his week-long workshop on African American gospel music. It was life-changing.
The version I learned is the one from the hymnal that you hear in churches and concerts, such as seen here from late November 2016 — an especially auspicious time — at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
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
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast
There are many popular arrangements of the song and I’ll only highlight a few. An all-star version from 1990 with Melba Moore features Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, The Clark Sisters, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Bobby Brown, Howard Hewett, Take 6, Stephanie Mills, BeBe & CeCe Winans and Jeffrey Osborne.
Beyoncé famously sang the anthem’s first verse in her 2019 Beychella concert.
For an earlier generation, enjoy the great Ray Charles from 1972.
And finally, in a recording uploaded yesterday in the midst of the pandemic and with the heightened focus on racial injustice and the celebration of Juneteenth, Nicole Heaston gathered 65 Black opera singers accompanied by Kevin J. Miller and conducted by Damien Sneed to sing Roland Carter’s arrangement of the Black National Anthem. As Ms Heaston says, “This song expresses the strength and resilience of the Black spirit during this time of turmoil and reflection.” It is one of the most moving versions I’ve ever heard.
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
I’d vote tomorrow to have The Star Spangled Banner replaced as our anthem by This Land Is Your Land along with Lift Every Voice and Sing. Until that glorious day arrives, listen or sing along and remember that Black Lives Matter.
More to come…