Friday, July 16, 2021

Lift Every Voice (and give the composer credit)

I just finished listening to a Radiolab mini-series called "The Vanishing of Harry Pace," which I recommend highly. But I was struck that in the final episode, a history of the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," there was detailed discussion about James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the poem, and then it was (passively) mentioned that the poem was "set to music." There was no mention about the person who wrote the melody.

The melodic and harmonic setting of the text has always struck me as something written by an excellent composer, and I wondered if James Weldon Johnson was indeed a composer of music as well as a composer of poetry.

It only took me two minutes (even with serious wireless delays) to look up James Weldon Johnson and music, and learn that James had a brother who was the composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954). I also learned that John Rosamond Johnson set his brother's poem to music.

Why, with all the brainpower and investigative reporting skill that the Radiolab staff has in their operation, didn't they take the opportunity to give listeners this very important information?

Here's an article about the song from the July 4, 2021 edition of Good Black News, which is where I got the above picture (John Rosamond Johnson is clean shaven, and his brother James Weldon Johnson has facial hair).



You can read more about him here and here, and you can find more of his music on this page of the IMSLP.

The first installment of the podcast talks about how a lot of Black composers wrote (offensive to so many twenty-first-century ears) minstral songs, and the hosts even mention "Under the Bamboo Tree" by name. Just imagine how interesting an additional episode that actually considered the lives of the composers involved in Black Swan Records (rather than just the business people and the performers) would have been. It boggles my mind to learn (on my own) that the music for "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was written the same composer.

UPDATE: I made an arrangement of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" for String Orchestra. You can get the music through this link.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You observe: The first installment of the podcast talks about how a lot of Black composers wrote (offensive to so many twenty-first-century ears) minstrel songs, and the hosts even mention "Under the Bamboo Tree" by name.

Many of the poets and lyricists of the last two hundred years (and of several races) wrote in varying forms of slang, which the uninformed of today make grist for their political mill without understanding anything other than the manufacture of 'really cool' outrage. In addition to many fine black poets who wrote in "dem" and "dis" kinds of language, only recently a new Gullah New Testament has been published. From it, De Nyew Testament, one may savor: "Dis yah de people wa dey write down say been kin ta Jedus Christ, fom way back ta Abraham time. Jedus come out fom King David fambly, an King David come out fom Abraham fambly."

When I hear political screed about "minstrel" and such, I think that there is much lack of information among those who would try to make a sharpened point out of a dulled mind. Hurray for you for seeing the Johnson brothers as such wonderful contributors to our culture. And let's be amused that their "Animals' Convention," meant for inclusion into a play form of Twain's Huckleberry Finn" now deemed racist by some, is by these brothers who must have had fun working together.

It seems past time to put away attacks on the past. for so many good reasons, or at least attack today's attackers for the same good reasons.

Good on you, m'Lady. Maybe it's time to revisit the brothers' complete opus?