James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938

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Music
 

James Weldon Johnson & Bob Cole, lyrics
J. Rosamond Johnson, music
The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground
New York: Jos. W. Stern, 1901.

James Weldon Johnson, lyrics
Will Marion, music
If the Sands of the Seas Were Pearls
New York: Jerome H. Remick, 1914.

As part of "Cole and Johnson Brothers," a collaboration that flourished in the first decade of the twentieth century, James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics to over two hundred popular songs. Shown here are two examples of Johnson's sheet music. "The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground" was originally written for the then-popular black-face minstrel shows. Johnson became well known for writing the lyrics to romantic ballads such as "If the Sands of the Seas Were Pearls."


James Weldon Johnson, lyrics
J. Rosamond Johnson, music
Lift Every Voice and Sing
New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, [ca. 1920].

Lift Every Voice and Sing: Quartette for Mixed Voices
New York: Edward B. Marks Music Company, [ca. 1928].

Perhaps the best known of all the Johnson brothers' collaborations was this stirring hymn, often called the "Negro National Anthem." The Thomas Cooper Library holds two early versions of this song. Around 1920, the NAACP printed a single sheet with the lyrics to both "Lift Every Voice" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." From the Augusta Baker Collection is displayed an early choral version, "respectfully dedicated to Booker T. Washington," the African-American educator.


The Book of American Negro Spritiuals
New York: Viking Press, 1925.

The Second Book of Negro Spirituals
New York: Viking Press, 1926.

New York's Harlem during the early years of the twentieth century became a center of African-American art and culture. Performers like Josephine Baker and Bill Robinson and writers like Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps helped make white America aware of black music, art, and poetry. This Harlem Renaissance awakened interest in the body of black folk music we now know as spirituals. Johson and his brother Rosamond, who was responsible for the musical arrangements, produced two very successful anthologies of traditional songs in 1925 and 1926. James Weldon Johnson's scholarly and informative introductions to each volume revealed the history and importance of these songs as a significant element in black folk tradition. The first image shows the famous "Gimme Dat Ol'-Time Religion," while the second displays the first page of the song "When I Fall on My Knees (Wid My Face to de Risin' Sun)," this version of which was dedicated to the memory of the Johnson brothers' partner, Bob Cole.

 

 

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