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“The Negro Spiritual, plantation songs, and their idiomatic outgrowth form distinctive elements of American folklore, folksongs, and folk-music.”
—J. Rosamond Johnson
J. Rosamond Johnson is known as one of the most prolific African American composers. The maestro was also a musicologist, arranger, teacher, pianist, soldier, actor, and producer. He serenaded audiences with his own songs and the rich, complex melodies of spirituals and plantation songs. Mr. Johnson understood that “negro” music was one of the few styles that were truly an American invention. He was an early proponent of this perspective and is one of the people of his era to foster the idea that the distinctive music of Black slaves is worthy of having a permanent place in American music history.
J. Rosamond Johnson and his brother, James Weldon Johnson, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. Their home was filled with music and books. Their mother was from the Bahamas and taught at the Stanton School, which was the first Black school in the state. Young Rosamond was a child prodigy and by the age of four was already an accomplished pianist. He went on to study at the New England Conservatory and then trained in London with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an iconic musical figure in Black British history.
After completing their educations, both brothers returned to Jacksonville: James became the principal at the same school where their mother taught and Rosamund joined him there to teach music as well as to serve as musical director for the Bethel Baptist Church.
James wrote a poem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which impressed his brother so much that he wrote a score turning it into a song that became the Black National Anthem. As part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12, 1900, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was first publicly performed by five hundred school children at the Stanton School.
For several years, the brothers spent summers in Harlem, writing songs for Tin Pan Alley. In 1899, they moved to Harlem permanently to pursue careers in musical theater full-time. They thought they would have more opportunities away from the Jim Crow south. By age twenty-three, Rosamond was touring as a vocalist with the company of Oriental America, thought to be the first all-Black show on Broadway that was not a burlesque act. Soon after, the brothers teamed up in a performance act with vaudevillian Robert “Bob” Cole. Within a few years, the three became financially successful through their songs, producing many that crossed the era’s strict racial boundaries. Not only were their songs featured in musicals on Broadway and heard by large audiences, but the tunes also extended beyond the stereotypical “Black” songs (i.e., ragtime, coon, etc.) of the day. In fact, in 1904, Rosamond may have been the first, if not the only Black musician to compose a presidential campaign song when he wrote, "You're All Right Teddy," for Theodore Roosevelt.
The team went on to produce two musicals featuring an all-Black cast: The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1907) and The Red Moon (1909). The Red Moon was a great surprise to theatergoers as it was the first time a plot featured relationships between Indigenous Americans and African Americans. Native people were so impressed that the Mohawk Nation on the Caughnawaga Reservation near Montreal, Canada, made Rosamond an honorary “sub-chief.” By today’s standards, Johnson’s representation of Indian life would be seen as stereotypic, but it was the first time Native people had been presented as authentic persons. And, equally surprising, it was the first time Blacks were featured in a romantic comedy or any play that had a love theme.
The Johnsons and Cole had a successful collaboration for seven years. During their collaboration, the team had also created and produced several "white" musicals: Sleeping Beauty and the Beast in 1901, In Newport in 1904, and Humpty Dumpty in 1904. Rosamond also created Hello Paris with J. Leubrie Hill in 1911. Rosamond and Cole wrote and published more than two hundred songs, including Under the Bamboo Tree, which sold more than 400,000 copies, making it one of the nation's most popular tunes. Cole died in 1911, but Rosamond continued his multi-faceted career.
The famed Oscar Hammerstein chose Rosamond to be the musical director of his Grand Opera House in London in 1912. The young Johnson became the first African American to serve in this position at a white theatrical company. After two years in London, he returned to New York with his new wife, Nora Floyd, and the couple started the Music School Settlement for Colored People in Harlem.
Rosamond continued to challenge the stereotypical minstrel portrayals of Black life and sought to create more realistic portraits. He also toured with his own ensembles, the Harlem Rounders and the Inimitable Five. Johnson also performed in Negro spiritual concerts with Emmanuel Taylor Gordon, including performances at Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall.
While Rosamond’s compositions echoed up and down Broadway and across the country for years, he could also be quiet, very quiet. A rash of violence against Black citizens by white mobs broke out in different parts of the country in 1916-17, particularly East St. Louis, Waco and Memphis, where many were killed. Black leaders had been calling for the federal government to enact anti-lynching laws and even Woodrow Wilson promised action in his campaign speeches, but the terror escalated and became even worse under Wilson’s administration. In a record-breaking heat wave on July 28, 1917, a perfectly silent Maestro J. Rosamund Johnson served as First Deputy Marshal of the NAACP’s Silent March of nearly 15,000 through New York City to call for justice.
When World War I broke out, Johnson received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 15th Regiment and returned to his art as soon as his tour of duty ended. He edited four collections of Black American music, including The Book of American Negro Spirituals. He toured with his own groups, often internationally and appeared in many plays, including the original production of Porgy and Bess in 1935. He did not write another musical comedy, but Johnson composed songs, taught young people music and theater and served as “theater doctor” for many productions until his death in 1954.
Rosamond and James Weldon were stunned when “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” became a famous anthem. Booker T. Washington recognized it in 1905 and the NAACP adopted it as an official song. It was referred to as the “Negro National Anthem.” Rosamond said, “The school children of Jacksonville kept singing it. They went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.” It is even more popular today and has been performed by celebrated artists like Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Anita Baker, as well as by ordinary people at graduations and other gatherings. In 2009, the Rev. Joseph Lowery quoted from the anthem during the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2020, the NFL began to play the anthem in the first week of the season, an acknowledgement of the violence and racism against Black people. But Colin Kaepernick watched from home after being banned for taking a knee in protest during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” And in 2021, United States Congressman James Clyburn created a bill to make “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” the country’s new national hymn. He said “it would be an act of bringing the country together.”
The current national anthem was written by a slave owner, Francis Scott Keys, who was furious that Blacks would even think about emancipation. His views are in the lesser-known verses of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Indeed, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” would seem to better represent all Americans. Generations have been inspired by the lyrics and uplifting music:
“Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.”