Lift every voice and sing

Origins. The words to this venerable hymn are by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), who was principal of the Edwin M. Stanton School in Jacksonville, FL, at the time. The music is by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954), who was a teacher at the school. James described the composition of the song in detail in his autobiography, Along This Way (NY: Viking Press, 1933), pp. 154-156:

A group of young men decided to hold on February 12 a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday. I was put down for an address, which I began preparing; but I wanted to do something else also. My thoughts began buzzing round a central idea of writing a poem on Lincoln, but I couldn’t net them. So I gave up the project as beyond me; at any rate, beyond me to carry out in so short a time; and my poem on Lincoln is still to be written. My central idea, however, took on another form. I talked over with my brother the thought I had in mind, and we planned to write a song to be sung as a part of the exercises. We planned, better still, to have it sung by school children—a chorus of five hundred voices.

I got my first line: “Lift ev’ry voice and sing.” Not a startling line; but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines:

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.

the spirit of the poem had taken hold of me. I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond. In composing the two other stanzas I did not use pen and paper. While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth on the front porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating. As I worked through the opening and middle lines of the last stanza:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on our way,
Thou who hast by Thy might
Let 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 …

I could not keep back the tears and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet’s ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment—that sense of serene joy—which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences.

When I had put the last stanza down on paper I at once recognized the Kiplingesque touch in the two longer lines quoted above; but I knew that in the stanza the American Negro was, historically and spiritually, immanent; and I decided to let it stand as it was written.

As soon as Rosamond had finished his noble setting of the poem he sent a copy of the manuscript to our publishers in New York, requesting them to have a sufficient number of mimeographed copies made for the use of the chorus. The song was taught to the children and sung very effectively at the celebration; and my brother and I went on with other work. After we had permanently moved away from Jacksonville, both the song and the occasion passed out of our minds. But the schoolchildren of Jacksonville kept singing the song; some of them went off to other schools and kept singing it; some of them became schoolteachers and taught it to their pupils. Within twenty years the song was being sung in schools and churches and on special occasions throughout the South and in some other parts of the country. Within that time the publishers had recopyrighted it and issued it in several arrangements. Later it was adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and is now quite generally used throughout the country as the “Negro National Hymn.” The publishers consider it a valuable piece of property; however, in traveling round I have commonly found printed or typewritten copies of the words pasted in the backs of hymnals and the songbooks used in Sunday schools, Y.M.C.A.’s, and similar institutions; and I think that is the method by which it gets its widest circulation. Recently I spoke for the summer labor school at Bryn Mawr College and was surprised to hear it fervently sung by the white students there and to see it in their mimeographed folio of songs.

Nothing that I have done has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being the part creator of this song. I am always thrilled deeply when I hear it sung by Negro children. I am lifted up on their voices, and I am also carried back and enabled to live through again the exquisite emotions I felt at the birth of the song. My brother and I, in talking, have often marveled at the results that have followed what we considered an incidental effort, an effort made under stress and with no intention other than to meet the needs of a particular moment. The only comment we can make is that we wrote better than we knew.

The song was published in 1900 by Joseph W. Stern & Co. (Fig. 1). The sheet music was “Respectfully dedicated to Booker J. Washington,”[sic] and headed “National Hymn for the Colored People of America.” This latter heading is particularly striking, given that the British Library copy is stamped 3 Nov. 1900, meaning that the designation “National Hymn” was not added later in subsequent printings, the song had always been branded this way. The NAACP was founded in 1909; its official adoption of the song as the “Negro National Anthem” was therefore more of a formality than a new moniker. The song was republished in 1921 when Joseph W. Stern & Company was renamed Edward B. Marks Music Co., Marks being one of the co-founders who took over the business when Stern retired.

Fig. 1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (NY: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1900). British Library copy, stamped 3 Nov. 1900.

Popular histories of the song perpetuate many errors, such as the assertion that the lyrics were written in 1900 but the music not until 1905, or that the song was not published until 1921, or that Booker T. Washington was at the Stanton school in 1900 when the song was premiered. None of these details are supported by James Weldon Johnson’s account or by empirical fact.

In spite of its monumental success, the song was not published in a hymnal until it appeared in the New National Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: National Baptist Publishing Board, 1977).

for Hymnology Archive
11 January 2019

Related Resources:

James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (NY: Viking Press, 1933), pp. 154-156.

Julian Bond & Sondra K. Wilson, Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem (NY: Random House, 2000).

“Lift every voice and sing,”