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Arts Desk

The Story Behind "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Song that Became the Black National Anthem

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Jessica Griffin
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Vocalist Laurin Talese in performance with The Philadelphia Orchestra, October, 2021. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing," an anthem with a surging melody and a promise of hope and freedom, has been a part of family, political, and social life in Black communities for more than a hundred years.

In 2021, The Philadelphia Orchestra opened its new season with a performance by Laurin Talese, which you can hear on The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcast on WRTI on January 16th and 17th, and also LIVE on the Philadelphia Orchestra's annual MLK Jr. Tribute Concert on WRTI, January 17th at 1 PM.

Here she is singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on the Orchestra's digital stage.

The now seminal anthem began as a poem—written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, a young writer working as a high school principal in Jacksonville, Florida—and set to music by his younger brother, composer J. Rosamond Johnson.

It came to life in its first performance at the high school where James was principal. In a ceremony celebrating the birth of Abraham Lincoln, a chorus of 500 school children sang out the compelling message of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," beginning with:

"Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty"

The title turned out to be prophetic, as this three-verse song took flight. With its soaring melody and words of rejoicing and hope, freedom and faith, and overcoming a dark history of oppression—it spread through 20th century black communities, as people learned it, sang it and taught it to others.

It became known as the Black National Anthem, and in 1919, the NAACP adopted the song, which was sung at school programs, social gatherings and civil rights marches throughout the 20th century.

“I’ve known it since I was a kid, probably five or six,” says singer Laurin Talese, who sang the song with The Philadelphia Orchestra on its digital stage series when live concerts were suspended, and then again to open the Orchestra’s 2021/2022 season.

“It was just an institution in the Black community,” she says, describing it as woven throughout her childhood. “It was one of those tunes I learned—even in middle school and high school, as I sang in those choirs— I would sing them in a choral style, I would sing them solo, I would with a gospel twinge, any program I was singing, maybe that song would be played, so I’ve sung it in so many different ways.”

The music is rousing; the words are powerful. "It's not only revering, documenting, and validating the African American experience with those lyrics. It's also looking towards the horizon and that's what I love about those lyrics."

"So whenever I sing it, I am thinking about my ancestors, and I'm thinking about, a dark past but a beautiful future. That's the only thing that keeps us going really—if we believe that there is a beautiful future to be had."

The story of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" leads to the story of its creators. In 1901, James and J. Rosamond Johnson moved to New York, where they wrote music for Broadway, and Black musical theater productions. James took a turn in the diplomatic core, serving as U.S. Consul to Venezuela from 1906 to 1913, and both became active Civil Rights leaders in the NAACP.

Laurin met with us on Zoom from her home in Philadelphia in front of a poster of Cicely Tyson, one of her role models. Laurin shared her thoughts about growing up with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and about the role of music in her life.

Other recent performances of the song include the 105 Voices of History, the Nation's first and only National choir for historically Black Colleges & Universities singing in 2020, the Spelman College Glee Club in 2019, and an Alicia Keys recording, played as part of the National Football Leagues 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Lift Every Voice and Sing (1900)
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 has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has 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.