Saturday Soundtrack, The Times We Live In
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The Black National Anthem

I originally published this post under the title Lift Every Voice and Sing in 2020 to honor Juneteenth. For the last Saturday in this year’s Black History Month, I am reposting it here in a lightly edited form.

In honor of Black History Month 2023, I am exploring the work of musicians of color who are reclaiming their musical heritage while taking us forward musically and socially. The first in this year’s series (a preview) featured Allison Russell. Others featured Kaia Kater, Joy Oladokun. and Liz Vice. For the MLK weekend, I featured the work of Ruthie Foster.

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

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer

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 in the midst of the pandemic and with the heightened focus on racial injustice, 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…


Image of James Weldon Johnson working at his desk.

This entry was posted in: Saturday Soundtrack, The Times We Live In


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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  1. Pingback: February observations | More to Come...

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