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"Lift Every Voice and Sing"
Women of the Calabash. The Kwanzaa Album. 1823-2. Bermuda Reefs Records, 1998. CD 8750

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Overview

This exhibition takes its name from a hymn composed a century ago by two African-American brothers, James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson. Written in the days of the Jim Crow South, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" inspired African Americans to persist in their struggle for equal rights. During the 1920s, the song was being pasted into the backs of hymnals and had become known as the "Negro national anthem." The hymn opens with an injunction to "ring with the harmonies of Liberty," calling for those constitutional rights which were being denied to African American, and closes by affirming God and country. These sentiments frame hopes for a better future, "the white gleam of our bright star."

Also on display, the book of the same name, co-edited by civil rights activist and University of Virginia history professor Julian Bond, celebrates the song's centenary and documents its enduring influence.


Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Printed by W.E. Chapin, 1867.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Wanting to encapsulate the American experience in his epic poem Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman fastened on to the sights, smells, and sounds of the America that surrounded him in the mid-nineteenth century. He wanted to sing the experience that belonged to him and to all Americans.



 

 "Mouth Songs." Fragment from autograph manuscript of "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman. 1860.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett
Library of American Literature.

Articulating this American identity, Whitman's "Mouth Songs" appeared for the first time in his third edition. Displayed is the earliest surviving manuscript of this poem, later renamed and reworked as "I Hear America Singing." By emphasizing songs, Whitman did not merely exercise poetic license but drew on music's integral presence in all daily activities. Singing complemented the beat of life, and voices resounded in churches, homes, schools, and workplaces, as they had for generations. Today, singing voices primarily stream from CD players, televisions, radios, and computers. Still, interest in America's "roots music," the music of the people, remains as great as ever. The availability of mass media, an explosion in new research in ethnomusicology, and a growing awareness of the benefits of a multicultural society now allow Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds a greater freedom than ever before to explore these musical roots.




 

Johnson, J[ohn] Rosamond. Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing: Official Song of the N.A.A.C.P. Lyric by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, 1949.

Purchased with the Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fun.

Photograph of James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson. Found in: Bond, Julian, and Sondra Kathryn Wilson, eds. Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem. New York: Random, 2000. 2. Purchased with the Minor Fund.


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