The Story Behind “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

[New World Records has two recordings of Lift Every Voice and Sing: an arrangement by William Grant Still, as well as the only recording of the original 1900 score—and only recording of the complete piece—performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. This article is adapted from the liner notes for Black Manhattan Vol. I, and Black Manhattan Vol. III, by Rick Benjamin.]


The James Johnson family of Jacksonville, Florida, was exceptional in many ways: They were middle class, educated, and had been free since before the Civil War. The father was a minister, and the mother, Helen, was Florida’s first black female schoolteacher. It was into this setting that their two remarkably talented and determined sons were born. 

James Weldon Johnson came into the world first, on June 17, 1871. As a child he studied both piano and guitar, and learned how to read and write music. He received his education at the Stanton School, and then attended Atlanta University. After James Weldon’s graduation from the college, he returned to Florida and became superintendent of the Stanton School. In 1895, as a sideline he founded and edited the nation’s first black daily newspaper—The Daily American. James Weldon then decided to become an attorney; he taught himself law, and became the first African-American ever to be admitted to the Florida bar. 

John Rosamond Johnson was born on August 11, 1873. As a very small boy he demonstrated outstanding talent at the keyboard. After his Stanton School education, he traveled to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. Six years later, J. Rosamond took to the road singing with John W. Isham’s “Oriental America” show. But around 1897, he returned to Jacksonville to become music supervisor for the public school district. 

J. Rosamond’s first taste of show business had inspired him to ask his man-of-letters brother to write a show with him. Thus the brothers began work on their first musical, Toloso. During the summer school break in 1899, the brothers made the long trip to New York City to see about finding a producer for their show. While they did not succeed in finding one, the trip did result in the Johnsons meeting several of the elites of black show business—Bob Cole, Will Cook, and Bert Williams and George Walker, among others. But when the fall school term arrived, the Johnsons dutifully headed south to get back to their teaching posts. There in early 1900 the two wrote a new song for their students—“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—which has since become the virtual black national anthem. 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a truly great work, and an impromptu one: In January 1900 James Weldon Johnson, principal of Jacksonville, Florida’s segregated Stanton School, was casting about for student assembly ideas to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. Johnson decided to write a poem for the occasion. Then a better idea occurred: Since his composer brother was at hand, why not have a poem with music? Together at the family home in Jacksonville, the Johnsons set to work. James paced the front porch working out the words, handing each finished stanza to John, who sat inside at the piano. James’s first phrase came easily—Lift every voice and sing! The rest of the first stanza was harder. Then the floodgates opened: “I paced back and forth . . . repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating. . . . I could not keep back the tears . . . 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.” 

Simultaneously, J. Rosamond was busy creating music every bit as powerful as his brother’s poetry—triumphant, noble, uplifting. These elements perfectly joined, the Johnsons mailed the manuscript to their publisher in New York, requesting mimeographed copies for use by their students. Over the following weeks the brothers taught the Stanton School’s chorus their new “song.” And on February 12, 1900 these youngsters gave the first performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing!” 

Satisfied, the brothers hurried on to other things. A few months later their publisher printed the work as “The National Negro Hymn.” Little more thought was given to it. But the black people who had heard it were touched and spread the song across the South the ancient way—orally. By 1910 “Lift Every Voice” was generally known around the country. In 1919 the N.A.A.C.P. (of which James Weldon Johnson was a founder) adopted it as the organization’s official anthem. 

In the spring of 1901 the Stanton School was destroyed by fire, and the Johnson brothers, perhaps still savoring the memory of their first New York trip, decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt to get into show business. They returned to New York and rekindled their acquaintanceship with Bob Cole, who was at that time shopping for a new songwriting collaborator. Reunited, Cole and the Johnsons enjoyed a rich relationship, eventually writing more than two hundred published songs. The trio adopted a remarkable creative process, which James Weldon described in his 1933 autobiography: “The three of us sometimes worked as one man. At such times it was difficult to point out specifically the part done by any one of us, but, generally, we worked in a pair, with the odd man as sort of a critic or advisor. Without regard to who or how many did the work, each of us received a third of the earnings. There was an almost complete absence of pride of authorship, and that made the partnership still more curious.” 

J. Rosamond Johnson went on to conduct choruses for shows and films, and again made history by being the first African-American ever to compose a motion picture score (Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson). He also appeared as a singer and actor in a variety of stage productions, most notably as Lawyer Frazier in the world premiere production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935). He played his last stage role in 1940, and died at his home in Harlem on November 11, 1954. 

James Weldon Johnson also remained extremely engaged. After his service in the diplomatic corps, he was a founding member of ASCAP (1914). In 1916 he translated the libretto of Granados’s opera Goyescas into English for its debut at the Metropolitan Opera. That same year he began his work as a civil rights activist, becoming a field secretary for the NAACP and an editorialist for the New York Age. In 1930 James Weldon Johnson became a professor of literature at Fisk University. That year also saw the publication of his history book Black Manhattan, which chronicled the contributions and tribulations of New York’s African-Americans from Colonial days through the 1920s. His autobiography, Along This Way, appeared in 1933. In 1934 he was the first African-American professor ever appointed by New York University. Tragically, this truly remarkable life was ended when James Weldon Johnson was killed in an automobile accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938. 


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