There’s been some amazement on the news and the blogs about jazz singer Rene Marie’s decision to substitute “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “black national anthem,” at a Denver ceremony starring the mayor’s state-of-the-city speech last Tuesday. What she did was to put the words of the hymn to the music of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This created quite a ruckus because the singer had been asked to sing the traditional “Star-Spangled Banner,” not this other song.
It’s a shame she didn’t use the music that goes with the lyrics. Most of the comments I’ve read show a lack of knowledge of this 1899 anthem, composed by a black man, James Weldon Johnson, and set to music a year later. Those who have not heard of it must have not spent much time in black churches as it’s a real favorite and the music is a lot more singable than the British drinking song to which Francis Scott Key’s lyrics were set. When I first learned it in the early 1990s in a church in a mostly black suburb of Pittsburgh, we were told the song was in the running to be named as America’s national anthem (because of its easy syncopation and singability) until word got out that its author was black. I’ve never seen anything written that substantiates that claim, but it is true that Congress didn’t officially make “The Star-Spangled Banner” America’s anthem until 1931.
However, the U.S. Navy was using “The Star-Spangled Banner” as far back as 1889 if not before, so it is unlikely “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had much of a chance. Still, the song has hung on as something that fits the black experience and familiar to those who have been in a black church, where the song has been kept alive. The song has not caught on elsewhere in the culture. Check its videos on YouTube and you’ll see mostly home videos with a few stage performances that embellish the song beyond recognition.
About two weeks ago I was covering a group of black pro-lifers protesting on Capitol Hill, where they closed their rally with a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” There were a bunch of junior-high-school-aged kids there, and while the grown-ups sang lustily, the youth obviously didn’t have a clue as to what the lyrics were. So, while the fallout continues in Denver, the song is going to stay relatively obscure until someone in the pop music world makes a decent recording.
— Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times