Praying in the Garden

I found a pleasant surprise as I glanced at my phone just before ending my last class for the week (woohoo!)–a simple, heartwarming message from Kim B, my newest Love Notes pal:

I was praying for you and your sister in my garden.

She enclosed photos of her gorgeous sunflowers (click an image for a closer look]:

The red one!!! Heavenly!

According to a note she sent in July, Kim planted the seeds a little late this year, but as you can see, they’re blooming beautifully. At the end of this emotionally exhausting week they’re my brilliant reminders to continue “facing the sun”.

Her written message telling of praying in the garden has me singing a favorite hymn, “In the Garden.”

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses:
And the voice I hear falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

The Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, offers a powerful rendition that deserves a listen:

Be sure to take some time to pray and meditate in the garden this weekend. You’ll experience amazing joy and peace.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938. Poet, novelist, statesman, civil rights leader, lawyer. Artist, Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Pastel on artist board.

The song dubbed “The Black National Anthem” should need no introduction, but I learned last October–moments after I posted an article focused on the University of Florida’s playing the song at the arrival of white supremacists on campus–that many Americans are not familiar with the song. In fact, one (Euro-American) friend uncharacteristically responded by declaring UF’s actions “racist.”

[We’ll save discussion about how that action could not have been “racist” for another time].

My friend’s judgment was based on the title of the article. She had never heard the song.

That surprised me. I’m pretty sure I initially learned the song at the majority white elementary school I attended, so I assumed it was standard for elementary kids in the U.S. Not so, I guess.

So what is the “Black National Anthem?”

The  “song,” actually entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was written as a poem by African American poet James Weldon Johnson to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It was later set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson.

The song gained popularity, was adopted by the NAACP, and was dubbed “The Black National Anthem.” But if we pay close attention to the lyrics, we’ll find that even though the song resonates with African Americans, it speaks to a broad American experience, one that in spite of its “informal” title, celebrates our collective history, freedom, and unity, one that speaks of faith and hope. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” feels more inclusive than the official national anthem of the U.S.A., “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I invite you to read the lyrics.

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.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Then, listen to this amazing arrangement sung by the “Choir of the World,” the Aeolians of Oakwood University:

See the Poetry Foundation for a a brief biography which references James Weldon Johnson’s extensive bibliography. A favorite for many is God’s Trombones.

A Moment with the Empress and the Lady

When I taught African American literature, blues artists Bessie Smith’s and Billie Holiday’s songs were key in deepening students’ understanding of the continuities of Black experience and literature and arts in America. I haven’t taught the literature since we moved to Northern Alabama, so their music is collecting dust. In fact, I think the collections are still in boxes.

A couple of days ago, I ran across a Billie Holiday postcard that I’ve had for quite some time–a familiar photo of Lady Day, with the signature gardenia in her hair.

Billie Holiday, c. 1936, Photograph by Robin Carson, from the Collection of Ole Brask

The sender’s note referenced listening to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith days before sending the postcard. Interestingly, the day after rediscovering the postcard–yesterday, in fact–I received a Bessie Smith postcard from my postcard pal Connie F. Talk about coincidence!

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), Photograph courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives, Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

The music goddesses are telling me to take a moment for Bessie and Billie. They are the best medicine for the madness of the days ahead.

Perhaps, you need a moment too.

Here’s a listening guide of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, singing “Backwater Blues” with James P. Johnson on the piano:

And for your pure listening pleasure, a 30-song compilation of Lady Day’s “top songs.”

Both women’s lives were cut short, but their influence reaches far beyond their years on this earth, and they continue to make a powerful impact on music in America.