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James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"

John Rosamond Johnson, who was the poet's brother, composed the music for the poem, which gained such prominence that it became designated as “The Negro National Anthem"—it was entered into the United States Congressional Record.

The poem shares a common theme with the "Star Spangled Banner"; both works celebrate and offer gratitude to the Divine for the rewards of freedom. The poem is especially significant to the Black experience, including liberation from slavery and the subsequent struggle against Black Codes, Jim Crow laws that continued to foster segregation and denigration of the former slaves and their descendants.

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

Lift every voice and sing,
Till 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 till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning 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 hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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.

Beautiful Rendition of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"

Commentary

James Weldon Johnson penned his poem, "Lift Ev're Voice and Sing," in 1900 to celebrate the birthday of the great emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln.

First Movement: Sing Joyfully and Loudly

Lift every voice and sing,
Till 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 till victory is won.

The speaker begins by enjoining his listeners to sing joyfully and loudly as to raise their voices to the Heavens. Such thankful voices should spread throughout the sea and sky. The singing must be filled with the "faith that the dark past has taught us, and with the hope that the present has brought us."

The speaker/singer encourages his hearers/listeners to continue their struggle until they are victorious. He insists that victory is not the final reward, but victory for freedom will demand constant vigilance, eternally watching and fighting to maintain that precious commodity.

The human race in all its various hues and shades has learned nothing, if not that there is never a guarantee of freedom without effort. There are always groups afoot, conspiring to take the freedom and property of others. Lest defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory, each human being must remain watchful to protect hard-won freedom.

Second Movement: Remaining Undeterred by Tears and Death

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning 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.

The speaker reminds his listener of the difficulties they have faced. The road has been "stony"—not impossible to travel but not easy nonetheless. Their struggles made having hope a weary task, but through unwavering courage and much hard work, they know they have gained their goal; thus they must celebrate and be thankful.

They have continued their march, undeterred by tears and even death. They have traveled on despite the blood shed, the gloom, and the often dashed hopes and dreams. They now can see that they stand, "Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast." They can finally realize that their struggles have resulted in hope and success.

Third Movement: Prayer of Gratitude

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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.

In the third and final movement, the speaker offers a prayer of gratitude to the Divine Beloved. The speaker/singer recognizes that the Divine Beloved has always guided them as they have been met with struggles for freedom. They have come through all the "weary years with silent tears."

The speaker/singer acknowledges that with the love and guidance of the Divine Reality, they have been led into the light, and he fervently prays that they will continue down the golden path of righteousness that leads and maintains liberty.

The speaker asks of his Divine Creator that he have the ability to keep his feet from straying away from His mercy and guidance. He also petitions the Divine Guide to assist them and not allow them to descend into drunkeness with worldly affairs that would divert their attention away from the Only Reality.

"Shadowed beneath [God's] hand": With this concluding, holy image, the speaker places his life, his trust, and his faith in the only hand that matters.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on February 25, 2017:

Your analyses always leave me wanting more! Thanks for another great article.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 14, 2016:

Thank you, Stella. It's such a lovely song with inspiring wise words. Johnson is one of my favorite poets. He was a great talent! Have a blessed day!

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on May 14, 2016:

I enjoyed reading this article about Johnson and love how you explain it. I never knew there was a Negro National Anthem. Thanks, Stella

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