A Song To Sing On The Road To Freedom

A song to sing on the road to freedom
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), lyric writer of “Lift Every Voice And Sing”

I have taken nourishment from the songs of my fellow Americans. If I wish to progress as a student of Knowledge, I must keep my eyes on the prize. I must keep my hand to the plow, practicing daily. I have to keep a song on my lips, and deep in my soul.

James Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), music writer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

I dream a world with a unified humanity. I have reflected on the anthems of nations and the joy they bring. I have dreamed of a future anthem for the human family. But today, I feel an inclination to write of a song that became an anthem. The song is “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” Two brothers, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and James Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), wrote this song in 1900.

A song to sing on the road to freedom

Out of all the songs written in 1900, two particularly stand out. “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” Francis Scott Key is more famous for the Star-Spangled Banner than anything else he did. I believe James Weldon Johnson is more famous for “Lift Every Voice And Sing” than anything else he did. James Weldon Johnson writes of his feelings and how this song spread.

“A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”

Lift every voice and sing   
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening 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 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,   
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.

Oh, if only the Johnson brothers could have seen Alicia Keys perform this song as the prelude to Super Bowl LV. I’m told that 96 million viewers watched this. What elation would they feel!

American poet Langston Hughes, writing of the song “Gospel Plow,” wrote:

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!

All I know is that “Lift Every Voice And Sing” is a song that has stood the test of time. If anyone is singing a song to sing on the road to freedom, they are my comrade. And when the anthem of the human family arrives, it will bring the same elation as “Lift Every Voice And Sing.”

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