Friday, June 25, 2010

James Weldon Johnson

Today's commemoration of James Weldon Johnson is another of those added last year to the Episcopal church calendar. Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. Hisparents had roots in the Bahamas, and his mother was the first black woman to teach in the public schools in that state, and Johnson graduated from that school before attending Atlanta University, and receiving his degree in 1894.

He returned to Jacksonville and became the principal of the school where his mother had taught. During this time he also began a newspaper for the black community (though it only lasted eight months) and also completed law school and was admitted to the bar. When his younger brother John Rosamond Johnson graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and also came back to Florida, the two collaborated on a comic opera called Tolosa, though they were unable to get it produced in New York as they had hoped.

The Tolosa experience provoked James's interest in writing lyrics for the melodies composed by his brother, and they began to collaborate on popular songs, at which they would become quite successful. But their most enduring song was written in 1900 for a Lincoln's birthday celebration at Johnson's school, where the students were welcoming Booker T. Washington as their guest speaker.

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 parents 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.

James Weldon Johnson, 1900; alt.
Tune: LIFT EVERY VOICE (irregular)
John Rosamond Johnson, 1900

This song spread far beyond that Jacksonville school in the years that followed, taken up as a hymn by black churches across the country, where the words were often pasted into the front cover of their hymnals. Lift every voice and sing was adopted by the NAACP as the black "national anthem" in 1919, and it remains in popular use today, having spread to many other denominational hymnals.

The Johnson brothers moved to New York in 1902 with a third partner, Bob Cole, and wrote many songs which were used in Broadway musicals (before the days when a musical score would be written by one composer). One of their hit songs, Under the Bamboo Tree, survives today partly due to the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, where it was sung by Judy Garland and Margaret Rutherford.

James Weldon Johnson later became disillusioned with the racial stereotyping of popular music and turned to other kinds of writing: poetry, folklore, and novels, including The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). He was also diplomatic consul to Venezuela for several years and later the secretary of the NAACP. He died on June 26, 1938 when his car was struck by a train.

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