Here are some tips from Daniel Ward on how to play his and Heidi Swedberg’s ukulele version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” You can read the story of the “Black National Anthem” and its lasting impact, including first-person narratives, in the Winter 2020 issue of Ukulele magazine.
Singing and playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with your ukulele is as easy as it is fulfilling. The melody in this 6/8 waltz-style anthem comes quickly with just a listen or two, but digging into the single-note TAB provided here will help solidify your grasp on the melody. A simple strum every three beats is plenty to move the rhythm along. You can also try a big strum followed by two quieter ones in a pattern that sounds ONE-two-three ONE-two-three, all down-strokes, which will work beautifully on this rhythm.
The best way to really get the melody into your bones is to listen to the Sojourners’ recording (though it is in a different key)—or really almost any of the plethora of versions online—and sing along. Many utilize harmony during the verses, but this song almost always has a unison voice during the chorus. The chords we need to play this song are garden variety shapes that most of us already know, like C, G7, F, and Am. Only two might be a bit new : Gdim and Ab major. The diminished chord shape looks a bit like a square knot but is quite simple once you get used to it, and the Ab looks just like an F chord but barred at the third fret. If a barre is not in your wheelhouse, another way to get the Ab to sound is to play a normal G shape and just move it up one fret, but don’t play string 4. It works just fine!
Once you can strum lightly through all the chords, let your voice take over and lead, for this song is truly meant to lift your spirit and can only become stronger when we sing it together.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Words by James Weldon Johnson, music by John Rosamond Johnson
Author’s note: The excellent book May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem by Imani Perry is a scholarly and great read, offering a thorough perspective on the song’s history and trajectory. I relied heavily on it in writing this article and wholeheartedly recommend it.