I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
And set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3)
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) is known to us mainly as the author of the lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing, which he co-wrote with his musician brother John Rosamund Johnson. But James Weldon Johnson was many more things during his illustrious career: a lawyer, a diplomat, a college professor, a civil rights leader and an author of many poems, song lyrics, novels and essays. During my research on him, I couldn’t find any indication that he was ever much involved in the life of the church, either as a child or as an adult. Yet, I believe there is plenty of evidence that the Lord had put his new song into his mouth, because he was able to find music even in life’s darkest experiences. Consider this poem, entitled The Gift to Sing:
Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day –
I softly sing.
And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
And sing, and sing.
I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
And I can sing.
Music gave Johnson relief and renewed hope. I believe this came to him through generations of faith that resided in his ancestors before him, who struggled on in spite of the harsh realities of servitude and colonialism in the Caribbean Islands, where circumstances beyond their control had brought them. That new song from God seems to shine through his words, familiar to many of us from Lift Every Voice and Sing:
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.*
James Weldon Johnson may not have been a “man of the church,” in a traditional sense, but I see him as a “man out of the church” — the spiritual product of a multigenerational heritage of faith in the face of powerful negative forces. So, I find joy in a quiet little poem about the scene he imagined at his graveside, entitled The Reward:
No greater earthly boon than this I crave,
That those who some day gather ’round my grave,
In place of tears, may whisper of me then,
“He sang a song that reached the hearts of men.”
I’d like to believe that this was a reference to the new song God had put into his heart that he was able to pass on to others.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*Another indication that the church had a strong spiritual influence on Johnson’s life and work can be seen in his brief book of poems entitled God’s Trombones, in which he celebrates the gifted preachers he had heard in traditional black churches