Grace and James Weldon Johnson

Lift Every Voice and Sing

    "A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln's birthday in 1900.  My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercise.  I wrote the words and he wrote the music.  Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made memeographed copies for us and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

    "Shortly afterwards, my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds.  But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children.  Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.  Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn is quite generally used.

    "The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish whenever I hear them sung by Nego children.

    "I got my first line--Lift every 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 I 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 paces back and forth on the front porch, repeated the lines over and over to myself, going through all the agony and ecstasy of creating."  
                                                     Written by James Weldon Johnson*


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 listening skies,
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of 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 hast 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.

                           Words by James Weldon Johnson
                           Music by J. Rosamond Johnson

    *The above materials including the words to Lift Every Voice and Sing were written by James Weldon Johnson.  Many individuals and groups, including the NAACP have cited erroneous information on web sites regarding the date the song was written by the Johnson brothers.  For example, the NAACP's  Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing web site states that the lyrics were initially written as a  poem and J. Rosamond Johnson set the poem to music iin 1899.  The site further states the song was performed the following year.  This is inaccurate. I hope the above writings by James Weldon Johnson himself will correct the record since accuracy is vital to students who use web sites for school work and other projects. The song (lyrics and music) was written in 1900.   Sources are:  Along This Way:  The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson  and Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems also titled Lift Every Voice and Sing:  Selected Poems by James Weldon Johnson.  These volumes are currently in print.

Submitted by Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, July 22, 2009
Executor, The Estate of Grace and James Weldon Johnson