Poetry Wednesday: James Weldon Johnson

It’s hard to credit now, but I had a decent singing voice as a child.

I was even Mary Poppins in fifth grade* and was always included in the group sent to sing in our school system’s Spring Concert Choir along with students from the nine or ten other elementary schools.

The vocal program didn’t vary much** but I didn’t care as long as I could stand on the bleachers in the big high school gym and pretend the other eighty kids were my backup singers.

And one of my favorites*** of the songs we always performed was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  It’s so full of hope and determination and imagery . . . and when I hear it, I have to sing along, if only under my breath.  It’s part of my childhood.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned this song was also sung every morning in many of the segregated schools in the early part of the twentieth century and was once called the “Negro National Anthem.”  And it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered it was written by a remarkable man—and set to music by his remarkable brother—to mark the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday:

Lift Every Voice and Sing
(James Weldon Johnson)

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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 chast’ning 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.

James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida.  His mother was a musician and a schoolteacher^ and his father was the maître d’hôtel at a prestigious resort.  His brother, John Rosamond Johnson—whom I mentioned above—was a classically trained musician, composer, and singer.^^

Mr. Johnson himself studied English literature and classical music at the University of Atlanta, traveled the rural South collecting the stories and traditional songs of former slaves, and did some graduate studies.

Then he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

During his lifetime, Mr. Johnson became the principal of the largest segregated high school in Florida and made many improvements to the curriculum and the facilities; was the first black man in Duval County to sit for the Florida bar exam; was appointed the U.S. Consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua; organized the NAACP and acted as the first executive secretary; protested Marine abuses of Haitians in 1920, launching a Congressional probe; became one of the “Elder Statemen” of the Harlem Renaissance; and was offered the Spence Chair of Creative Literature—a position created specifically for him—at Fisk University in Nashville.

Throughout his life—which ended in a car crash in June of 1938—James Weldon Johnson never stopped promoting the advancement and achievements of African-Americans and fighting for integration and equality.

And in between all these things, he wrote beautiful poetry,^^^ compelling books,° and the lyrics to several popular songs, including the one I still remember singing every spring while I was in elementary school— all of us children together.

I think Mr. Johnson would have approved.

 _____________________________

The image is of “The Harp” by sculptress Augusta Savage, who, inspired by “Lift Every Voice,” created it for the 1939 World’s Fair.

Click on the image for more information.

_________________________________

*Which I did with the accent, y’all.  Julie Andrews was my idol, and even more so once I saw Victor Victoria.  I still secretly practice “Jazz Hot Baby” when no one’s around, even though I couldn’t glissando up to that last high note without vocal cord surgery and the sudden, timely appearance of a coconut crab  next to me in the shower.  But I digress.

** All the elementaries shared one music teacher who didn’t have the time or the energy to teach five or six new songs to nine (or ten) schoolsworth of kids every single year, especially when he only visited each school once a week.  He would sometimes put on records and snooze a bit before theatrically waking up and telling us to give it a try because our caterwauling would help keep him awake.  He also saw no reason why we, as children under twelve, shouldn’t sing an entire song, with the verses about death and smiting enemies and wading through their entrails.  He also favored show tunes, which included most of West Side Story and the one in Oklahoma where the hero tries to persuade his rival to commit suicide.  We adored him.

***Right after the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was the first song I ever heard—it was my mother’s Lamaze focus song, which tells you something about my mother and possibly about her ideas of childbirth.  And it probably explains a few things about me as well . . .

^Helen Dillett Johnson was the first black, female grammar school teacher in Florida.

^^I looked him up, just to get his full name, and got stuck for an hour.  How talented can one family be?

^^^His poetry was published in several newspapers and magazines, as well as a collection, God’s Trombones.   In addition, his Book of American Negro Poetry, which he compiled and edited, is considered a major contribution to African-American literature—some of his poetry is in there, too, including one that I’ve always found comforting:

Mother Night   
(James Weldon Johnson)

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

° His first novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, was published anonymously in 1912.  The main character, who is of mixed race, gives up his African heritage for the safe mediocrity of living as a middle-class white man.  I’ve read parts of it here and there—it doesn’t pull many punches.  His autobiography, Along This Way, doesn’t either.

______________

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: James Weldon Johnson

  1. A car crash in 1838? That’s . . . amazing!

    The poems are striking and powerful, though I have to confess it’s your description of his books that intrigues me most. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is going on my list.

    You’ve always got something good for us, Sarah.

    • Oh, crap—editing now.

      I do this all the time—I spend so much time researching the 1800s every day, I can’t remember which side of the 20th century I’m on . . .

  2. “A brooding mother over chaos lay.”
    Hmmm… that sounds strangely familiar.

    Thank you for this, Sarah. I’ve been looking for music to accompany three minutes of a photo montage, and this just might it.

  3. Wow. The amount he was able to accomplish, and all of it against so many odds. Amazing.
    When I read Mother Night, I wondered it that was the inspiration for Vonnegut’s Mother Night. Then I found out his novel title was pulled from Mephistopheles’ speech in Faust which makes me wonder if Johnson’s poem is also referencing that and is darker than at first read…
    “But I’m the part of the Part which at the first was all,
    Part of the Darkness that gave birth to Light,
    The haughty Light that now with Mother Night
    Disputes her ancient rank and space withal,”

    • Oh, I like that, Lyra.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Vonnegut took inspiration from the same source. They were both highly educated men. And that passage does have impact!

  4. I’m still too traumatized right now by memories of being forced to sing in elementary and junior high to comment on anything else.

    My singing voice: you do not want to meet her.

  5. While I am almost speechless at the amount of things Mr. Johnson accomplished, I must tell you that I’m impressed in appropriate measure that you did Mary Poppins with the accent in the fifth grade. That rocks.

    • I’d love to take the credit, but when you watch that movie as much as I did, it would have been impossible not to do those lines with her accent! 😀

  6. What you’ve done with Poetry Wednesdays this month is fantastic. You have a way of honoring people based on themselves and their deeds and their uniqueness, of wrapping history into a small lesson that is enormously engrossing–and it’s enjoyable. The image with this is as amazing as the poem and history.

Talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s