Saturday, June 15, 2013

Lifting Voices instead of Crushing Spirits

I went to yet another celebratory community event this week and heard yet another singer sing some of the most powerful and symbolic words ever set to music as if they were at a funeral for that Chicago teen who was shot and killed in a random act of violence shortly after performing with her schoolmates at this year’s Presidential inauguration.

The soloist strung the song out so long that I thought maybe she was expecting a whipping from the plantation overseer the moment she finished.

I mean it was so pitiful that I wanted to cry.

Actually, I wanted to cry out in anguish, something like WHO DIED?! Or maybe STOP IN THE NAME OF MERCY BEFORE YOU BREAK MY HEART!!!!!

Believe me, I’m not picking on the singer. She was earnest, and her modest voice would have sufficed had she demonstrated any understanding of the lyric.

But it’s not just her. I have been to countless Cleveland affairs where this most stirring and brilliant anthem in American history is rendered. LIKE. A. DIRGE.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time I can remember when the song was sung with verve, with pride, with robustness! The words themselves have a certain innate majesty, but if the singer tried to be too solemn then his audience, singing along because they knew, understood and loved the words, would pick up the soloist’s cadence and force him to accelerate.

Perhaps how the song is sung these days suggests where too many of us are as black Clevelanders. We sing this beautiful poem as if we are downtrodden, without hope. As if we have traversed a long and stony road, with only bitter food and drink for sustenance, and the road has dead-ended. We can’t remember where we’ve been, we don’t know where we’re going, and we haven’t the slightest confidence that any of our leaders have a clue.

The strange and sad part about this is that the anthem itself is a roadmap. It commands us to be upbeat, to celebrate with confidence, to sing with faith and hope as we march on till victory is won. While the second stanza reminds us how long and difficult the path has been, it reminds us that we have already gotten to where our forbears could only dream of going. And then the third stanza offers up a prayer to the Creator that we stand true to first principles and resist being seduced by the temporal pleasure or the selfish impulse.

I venture to say that 80% of Real Deal readers know that I have been referring herein to Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson more than a century ago and magnificently set to music by his brother J. Rosamund. Many of you refer to it lovingly as the Negro National Anthem.

There was a time when I wouldn’t miss a February church service because we sang it as a congregation every Sunday during Black History Month. [Shout out to the Rev. Dr. F. Allison Phillips!]

I have reprinted the lyric below. Although it is a cultural crime to sing it as if it were a death knell, no such injunction should stop you from reading it with deliberation, pondering the words, and savoring their spirit-filling goodness.

Afterwards you might want to listen to one of the stirring renditions appended here. After listening to these versions I realized that it's not just the funereal pace of so many local renditions, it's most especially the lack of spirit and energy. Keep that in mind if you are ever on a program planning committee, and do whatever you can not to hire an aspiring embalmer as your soloist.

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heav'n 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 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 a path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out of 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 on the path we pray
lest our feet stray from the places oh God where we met thee
lest our heart 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

February 1900


Anonymous said...

I love singing that song! And I'm the sort of person who doesn't like dirgey tempos. But what do I know? I'm white.

Richard said...

We both love singing it! I just find it impossible to sing along when it d.....r.....a.....g.....s...... so depressingly.

Thanks for your comment, which has catalyzed a second post on the topic: