“I had a clear vision for Coachella. I was so specific because I’d seen it, I’d heard it, and it was already written inside of me. One day I was randomly singing the black national anthem to Rumi while putting her to sleep. I started humming it to her every day. In the show at the time I was working on a version of the anthem with these dark minor chords and stomps and belts and screams. After a few days of humming the anthem, I realized I had the melody wrong. I was singing the wrong anthem. One of the most rewarding parts of the show was making that change. I swear I felt pure joy shining down on us. I know that most of the young people on the stage and in the audience did not know the history of the black national anthem before Coachella. But they understood the feeling it gave them.
“It was a celebration of all the people who sacrificed more than we could ever imagine, who moved the world forward so that it could welcome a woman of color to headline such a festival.” — Beyonce, “Beyoncé in Her Own Words: Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage”, Vogue, September 2018
Maybe it’s just me, but while it’s reasonable to assume everyone in attendance at Beychella (as it would come to be known) didn’t know the history of the black national anthem, surely more than a couple knew its significance.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing”, after all, has been embedded in black America’s DNA for more than 100 years. We’ve sung it every February ever since Black History Month was a thing, and every December since Kwanzaa was a thing. We have always known it was important: it was written that way, with those deep major chords, that major-to-minor downshift on the bridge, and those stentorian lyrics. It has grounded us, lifted us, strengthened us, every single step of the stony way we’ve trodden.
The song is so much a part of us, of who we are and how we choose to cast ourselves, that it’s almost beyond history. It’s almost as if it would be part of a black cultural Mount Rushmore (alongside, what? Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog’s “God Bless the Child?” Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing? Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series? Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust? Toni MOrrison’s Beloved? James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”?) It stands beyond question: of course “Lift Every Voice and Sing” sings to black people’s highest vision of ourselves, because that’s what it was written to do.
Which is why Beyonce’s rendition at Coachella was so noteworthy: she fucked with it. No, she didn’t transform its infrastructure, try to make it mean something it didn’t. She took its bones and pumped new blood through the song. This is important. Think of the ways black and brown artists have fucked with that other national anthem: Jose Feliciano, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, even Whitney Houston in that bombastic, let’s-bomb-Arabs moment. They took that song and made it mean something well beyond what British POW Francis Scott Key imagined words set to a drunken pub shanty could ever mean.
But few have ever taken such liberties with “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It’s been done many times over these last several decades: jazz, R&B, gospel, and various permutations of all of the above. Essentially, all anyone has dared do is tweak at the margins. They put a little of themselves into it, but it remained, unmistakably, the same “Lift Every Voice and Sing” we’ve always known and it has always been, in all the reverence it inspired, in all the reverence we have invested into it.
Beyonce found a way to still hundreds of thousands of people, in person and online, and appreciate in a whole new way the power and the majesty that the brothers James and Rosamond Johnson set forth at the turn of the 20th Century, all while exercising her own vision as a black woman, mother and artist. And not one single ounce of reverence went missing.
How is that possible? How can one composition possibly be that sturdy and eternal, to mean the same thing at a community celebration, a protest march, a religious service, a grade school program, and a fucking rock concert in a desert somewhere, without being radically undone in any of those contexts?
Amazingly, that’s about the only question Imani Perry doesn’t fully answer in her essential critical history, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem. She doesn’t dwell much on the stately artistry of that immortal song, nor does she produce a fawning admiration of it (we already have one of those in Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem; 100 Years, 100 Voices, Random House, 2001). Instead, all she does is explain how the song became immortal. The short answer: because black people felt it and made it so.
The story begins in Jacksonville, Forida in the late 1800s. Brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, sons of a school teacher and a hotel worker, were educators at early black schools in the state, and had devoted their professional and artistic pursuits to racial advancement (the term for that back then was “race men”), as black social organizations and cultural endeavors took shape at the onset of the Jim Crow era. James wrote the first version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a poetic tribute to Abraham Lincoln, but scrapped that vision to focus on something grander. Rosamond, who studied music at the New England Conservatory and later in London, set a tune to it. The final version was performed at the school where James taught on 12 February 1900.
Almost immediately afterwards, it went “viral”, if you will.
From that initial performance, the song made its way, in sheet music and publication of its lyrics, through black America via the ad hoc network of black uplift organizations that emerged in the early 1900s. A 1901 article in an early black magazine was the first to refer to the song as an anthem. It had already become firmly entrenched in black life by the time it was first recorded, in 1922 by the Manhattan Harmony Four for black-owned Black Swan Records:
As a thousand black musical flowers bloomed during the ’20s – jazz, blues, gospel, show tunes (another area the brothers Johnson would take up) and even classical – “Lift Every Voice and Sing” stood apart, and came to represent something extra-musical. It inspired artists like sculptor Augusta Savage, became the unofficial theme song of the nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and was even embraced by white leftists as a universal message of justice and solidarity.
From there, Perry traces the song’s curious path through the 20th Century. May We Forever Stand is not a making-of music biography, in the sense of Greil Marcus’s dissection of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, or the titles in the 33 1/3 book series; she’s a cultural historian, after all, not a musicologist. Instead, she shows how the song reflected shifts in black social life and activism, while never losing its central character and significance. In that respect, the book becomes another prism to reflect upon the path towards, in James Johnson’s words, “the place for which our fathers sighed”.
Perry uncovers a reference to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first public address, as a 15-year-old student in 1944. A memoirist recalls how his school assembly broke out with an impromptu singing of it upon hearing the news that the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signed Jackie Robinson. In 1956, Sonny Rollins weaves a quote from it into his recording of “The House I Live In”, which was written by the Communist-blacklisted songwriter Earl Robinson and prominent leftist Abel Meeropol, best known for the lyrics to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.
“The Negro National Anthem [as the song came to be known] became a tool of transcendence,” writes Perry. “It was a tool for community-building. It was remembered by [Maya] Angelou as reflecting the very spirit of black resilience.”
Yet it fell out of favor as a rallying cry during the early ’60s, Perry reports, in favor of Charles Albert Tindley‘s “We Shall Overcome”. But by the end of the decade, with the Black Power mindset ascendant, it re-emerged. Many of the era’s fiercest voices, like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, recalled with pride the meaning the song had held for them since childhood. It, and not Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner”, would be sung before the start of black college football games. Ray Charles once performed it live on national TV, as only he could:
Also during these years, other black artists took the song on directly, including jazz musicians on the level of Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. That would continue through throughout the back half of the century, with everyone from the Sounds of Blackness gospel ensemble to Melba Moore and a legion of black pop stars slickly taking a turn on it. At the dawn of the 21st Century, the song’s enduring meaning and relevance seemed beyond challenge — and so too, apparently, did its structure. It had become, essentially, black cultural bedrock. There have been minor variations by various folks over the years — incorporating the South African freedom anthem here, adding a bluesy guitar underpinning there — but very few radical departures from the original arrangement (which might explain the sense of weariness you hear from some folks about a song whose tune has aged far less gracefully than its impact, especially if you’re asked to sing all three verses).
Unless you count jazz singer Rene Marie, who raised a ruckus in 2008 when she sang the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” lyrics over the “Star-Spangled Banner” melody. One might expect hip-hop to have done a recasting of the song by now, but Perry cites only a few avant-garde performers to have taken it further out. But perhaps none of that was, or is, necessary: she also reports how the song was sung at vigils in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the 2014 murder of Michael Brown and at other mass Black Lives Matter moments.
“There is no song that touches me so deeply,” Perry concludes, “but while… ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is powerful, we should not be sentimentally attached to it or any other composition just for tradition’s sake.” She goes on to urge the continued evolution of social rituals that affirm and sustain black life and, she seems to imply, that evolution might eventually call for a new soundtrack. But we’ve had 118 years since James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson came up with a piece for a school assembly, and for all the titanic moments black music has seen since then, nothing has come along to mean what “Lift Every Voice and Sing” still does, at least across all sectors and generations of black America. Maybe the best we can ask along those lines is what Beyonce did at Coachella, to take the sturdy and eternal and make it sing anew, for and about the present day.
And that’s, ironically, the very point Perry proves throughout May We Forever Stand. There may be something sometime down the line to mean what “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has come to mean, but in the meantime, good luck. It’s like trying to write a new Tin Pan Alley-like “standard” pop song. You can master the form and come up with something perfectly wonderful, but those songs became “standards” only because masses of performers and audiences bestowed their approval onto them over several years and iterations of pop and jazz. It’s no easy task to create one song that can lift up and inspire a nation for a century-plus — and it’s important to note that’s not what the brothers Johnson were trying to do. Further, try that feat when cultural orientations are impossibly more diffuse than they were back in 1900 (or, for what it’s worth, name another song from 1900 many people still sing).
All that makes “Lift Every Voice and Sing” all the more remarkable an achievement (and, it should be noted, it was hardly the Johnsons’ last major artistic accomplishment). May We Forever Stand pays it a long-overdue analytical celebration, and reminds us of something basic, for all the song’s grandeur: Sometimes, a song is not simply just a song.