“Lift Every Voice and Sing!,” Part I

A Conversation in Celebration of the Life of Martin Luther King Jr., with Chelle Stearns and Composer Stephen Michael Newby, April 4, 2018

This is Part I of an interview with composer and musician, Stephen Michael Newby, Professor of Music at Seattle Pacific University. He has composed two large scale works based on the life and writings of Martin Luther King Jr.: his 1994 symphony, Let Thy Mercy Be Upon Us: A Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. (tenor solo, orchestra, and choir) and his 1998 oratorio, Montage for Martin (chamber orchestra, rhythm section, and chamber singers). On April 4, 2018, selections from Montage for Martin were performed at a candlelight service commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s death at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. This post is part of a series of essays, interviews, and resources celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

SCSM: Some members of the African American community have noted that the current generation of young adults don’t know “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” considered by many to be the black national anthem, so what does this anthem mean for today?

SMN: Some people don’t even know what they don’t know. But what the anthem does for us, it connects us once again to our story. It is more than a riff or trope or a motif. It’s an anthem. So much of our music today, that hits the mainstream, they’re tropes, they’re riffs, something that has been commercialized, that signify something and them move away from that meaning. The Johnson brothers created this incredible anthem because anthems anchor us. They anchor our souls to our stories. It is indeed important for us. But people don’t know it, so they don’t know their soul. Especially black Americans.

I have questions: Are there systems trying to get us to forget our souls? Trying to destroy the narrative? And if it is just a quick motif or riff, the black life, or the stories—it is just that. But when you “lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring … ring with the harmony of liberty,” that’s not only the black national anthem, it is an anthem that informs humanity. It’s not just good for black people, but it’s good for all people. If people are concerned about liberty, freedom, and justice, then lift every voice. Everyone has a voice, so lift your voice and sing. There’s a lot of shouting, but to sing … to sing … it’s a holistic way of embodiment of what you are saying. Everyone has a voice, and when we can sing it together, it unifies us. It does. It at least puts us on the same page for a minute.

SCSM: Why do you think people have neglected “Lift Every Voice and Sing”?

SMN: Probably because it is not “cool.” Where is it performed today? I remember performing it almost every Sunday, in a period when I was at Messiah Missionary Baptist Church, in Detroit, Michigan, in the late ’80s and the ’90s. Every Sunday, it was sung. [Today] people aren’t going to church, so they don’t sing this. It was also sung in the schools. I have this book here that I used when I was in the Detroit Public School system, Afro-America Sings. This book—created by and for the Detroit Public Schools—was published in 1971, only three years after the death of Martin Luther King: and we were singing this stuff!

SCSM: What is the importance of community, music, and story being bound together in this way?

SMN: You show me a human being that doesn’t eat, and there is malnutrition. Right? Show me a family that eats together—eating is important in itself—but when you eat together, that’s really good. The question is, are people singing? It’s important that we sing, we are human beings. And we need to be singing together. It’s as important as eating food, having a meal together. Singing together is like having a meal together: it feeds us. It’s what human beings do. So when you’re not singing, that’s a problem.

Let’s pay attention to what we are singing and what happens when we don’t sing together.

Lift Every Voice and Sing
Words by James Weldon Johnson
Music by John Rosamond Johnson
Lift every 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.

For a history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the Johnson brothers, you can listen to “The Black National Anthem,” Radio Times, podcast audio, April 3, 2018, https://whyy.org/episodes/the-black-national-anthem/.

Part II of the interview will discuss Dr. Newby’s inspiration and compositional style of his orchestral works based on the life and writings of Martin Luther King Jr. This post is part of a series of essays, interviews, and resources celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr.