BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a rousing patriotic anthem, perfect for the ukulele. A most American instrument, the ukulele was born in a foreign land, found its voice on colonized soil, and became a highly respected citizen. There have been Black ukulele players from the time the ukulele was “naturalized,” and it has been embraced by many contemporary Black musicians, as well. As America continues to figure out ways to address issues of systemic racism, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is enjoying a remarkable resurgence. Even the normally social-issues-averse National Football League announced plans to feature performances of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before each opening game in the fall 2020 season. So, this is a great time to learn the song, discover its history, share it with those we love, and let “your rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound, far as the rolling sea.”
I. A Poem Blossoms into Song
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
Music’s greatest power is to connect people, to link our lives across distances of time, space, and culture. When we learn a song, we take within ourselves its history. If you listen deeply when you sing, you can hear earlier renditions as overtones; the past lives and breathes within you. Voices raised in unison declare our membership to something greater than ourselves. Singing together makes one out of many. Singing is good, but understanding a song’s history and context makes it better.
An anthem is a song that celebrates the ideals of a people. Although the authors of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” did not intend their song to be referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” it has unquestionably become so in the hearts and minds of the people who have been singing it for over a hundred years. From an assembly of segregated school children, to Beyonce at Coachella in 2018, and more recently by protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial following the murder of George Floyd, singing the song remains relevant and powerful. And it’s a delight to sing, especially with a crowd. Its soaring lyricism and minor chord pangs make it not just an earworm, but a heartworm. The inherent swing of 6/8 time, a nod to Spanish bolero, makes it a march and a dance at once.
Near the close of the 19th century, about two decades past the dawn of the Jim Crow era of legally sanctioned segregation, two accomplished brothers, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson (born 1871 and 1873, respectively) returned to their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, to sojourn as teachers. Rosamond (as he was known), who had studied music at the New England Conservatory and in London, held a position at the Florida Baptist Academy, a Black boarding school. His older brother James, who held a degree from Atlanta University, returned to teach at the Stanton School, his alma mater. Founded in 1868, Stanton was the first public school for Black children to eighth grade in the state of Florida. Their mother, Helen Louise Dillet Johnson, had been Jacksonville’s first Black public school teacher there. After becoming the first African American admitted to the bar since Reconstruction, James became the Stanton School’s principal.
James Weldon Johnson explained how what began as a poem he wrote for an event in 1900 blossomed into a song, with music by his brother Rosamond, five years later: “A group of young Black men decided to hold on February 12th  a celebration in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. I was put down for an address, but I wanted to do something else also… I talked over with my brother the thought I had in mind, and we planned to write a song to be sung as part of the exercises. We planned better still to have it sung by school children, a chorus of 500 voices.”
Those voices carried the song northward and westward in the Great Migration of Blacks out of the South. It was immediately embraced by the churches, schools, and associations that made up the social net of Black life in the early and mid-20th century. The NAACP adopted “Lift Every Voice” as its official song in 1919, cautiously referring to it as the “National Negro Hymn.” Added to the backs of hymnals and distributed along with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the song became an important feature of religious and secular life, spread by the people, for the people. Communities rallied to it, carrying it forward three decades before Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defense of Fort McHenry,” set to the 18th century British tune “Anacreon in Heaven” was dubbed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and made the official anthem of the United States in 1931.
In 1926, James Weldon Johnson responded to criticism of his song’s anthemic status, answering, “There is nothing in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ to conflict in the slightest degree with the use of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ or ‘America’ [“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” sung to “God Save the Queen”] or other patriotic songs. It is fully as patriotic; among possibilities are that it may grow in general use among White as well as Colored Americans…”
Many Black people, especially those who grew up in the South, recall “Lift Every Voice” as the “school bell song,” which, along with the national anthem, was sung before classes each morning. The song still rings as a climax for commencements, assemblies, and athletic events at HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Amidst the tumult of the civil rights movement, it was sung during the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56). The poem itself has ascended to the American literary canon and its inspiring words have been quoted by numerous orators—Martin Luther King included the entire second verse in one of his final speeches, and the third verse became the benediction for Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration. Individual phrases are routinely alluded to in book titles, other poems, and works of art.
There are pop, jazz, gospel, and rap renditions, and now a ukulele arrangement. Many fine singers have made their own versions, but the song is most powerful when sung, as the title and first verse suggest, en masse. Together in unison or harmony, all three verses—one of praise, one of lamentation, one of prayer—form a ritual of healing and growth, a beginning step towards liberty for all.
II. Uke Players and ‘Lift Every Voice’
Los Angeles, California
I was a student at Howard University [in Washington, D.C.] when I learned the song. It is sung at every commencement, assembly, and athletic event. Singing it in unison was a very moving experience. I found that more recently the lyrics were slipping away from me, so about a year ago, I decided to learn them again. Now, I sing the song to myself every morning as I begin the day.
As a descendant of Harriet Tubman, the song reminds me of the tremendous courage, insight, and leadership that she possessed. When I am fearful, it reminds me to be courageous. Each chorus speaks of the horrors that were endured by my ancestors, the gratitude that I have for the freedom from their enslavement, the commitment to continue carving paths of social justice, and honoring my journey that has been guided by faith.It is tremendous that the NFL is adding it to their opening ceremonies, and I hope that their decision is a permanent one. Adding this song to the ukulele canon will encourage musicians to learn and teach the song globally.
Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
In the Civil Rights movement of the ’70s, when I was an activist, the anthem was “We Shall Overcome.” So this spring, when I kept reading about ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ as the anthem of the new movement, I had to go online to download it for myself. Now I play it every Sunday morning in lieu of going to church. The sweeping crescendos and the stirring words remind me that human rights transcend quarantines and politics and geography.
Uke jam leader, science and technology policy advisor
Montgomery Village, Maryland
I was still a small child when I first heard it at some event where children were to be seen but not heard. It was unlike anything I had ever heard up to that point. It was a powerful community affirmation of joy and triumph over oppression. I could feel it in the voices of the adults who surrounded me—and hear it in the words and music.
Now, each time I hear or sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—and I love to sing it, especially with a choir so that I’m surrounded by those rich harmonies—I experience a direct connection with our ancestors, whose perseverance and hope paved the path for freedoms hard won. Each time, I await with great anticipation the start of the third verse: ‘God of our weary years . . .’ Traditionally, it is sung slowly, meditatively. The tempo begins to build until we are back in tempo for that final declaration: “True to our God, true to our native land!” And yes, I always go for and nail the high note at the end.
Ukulele performer; minister, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
My most memorable time singing it was at the St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, which had previously been known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy,” at a special forum on racism and the church’s history. One of the special guests was Bishop Michael Curry, the current—and first Black—presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; he also preached at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. The hymn was the final piece of the evening. The “Black National Anthem” in the former Cathedral of the Confederacy, sung by people of every race side by side… very powerful. “Lift Every Voice” appears in the hymnals of more than 30 churches, including Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian.
Khari Wendell McClelland
Singer, songwriter, musician
Growing up in a context where you are around a lot of Black people in the United States, it would be almost impossible to not know “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or have some relationship with it. I grew up in Detroit, a large Black majority city, so culturally what was normative was probably different for me than a lot of other Americans, even Black Americans who didn’t have access to the Black cultural powerhouse musical experience. As a kid, I remember feeling the import of the song. I always understood that this song is deep and profound, and felt in the energy of adults singing it hopefulness, but also loss and grief. They were speaking a truth that was also a painful truth.
When I sing that song with the Sojourners [“Lift Every Voice and Sing” appears on the Soujourners’ EP Freedom Never Dies], I feel their personal stories. They grew up in very rural Black communities in the South. The church and song were a respite from the hate they were surrounded by, and I can feel that in there. It is interesting that we chose to do it mostly a capella, because I understand the song to be about voice. It Is to be sung, not played as an instrumental. Not all songs feel that way. It needs a large group of people—it’s anthemic. When you finish the song you feel like you’ve gotten to the mountaintop, so many things are possible!
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.