by Linda Ryan
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As ‘Steal away to Jesus’? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great ‘Jordan roll’? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot ‘swing low’? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’?
What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.
Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than ‘Go down, Moses.’ Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.
There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You – you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.
You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sting far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live, – but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.* — James Weldon Johnson
There are people who seem to have so many gifts and talents and abilities that it is almost impossible not to look at them as exceptional. The very brief biography of James Weldon Johnson on the Lectionary page is a long list of positions, talents, and passions that have made him one of those exceptional human beings. During his lifetime (1871-1938), he lived through a period where African Americans were generally not thought of as intelligent or important. Johnson, like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, among many others, proved scoffers wrong.
Among Johnson’s greatest gifts was that of a poet and storyteller. His book, God’s Trombones, is a short book of sermons in verse, sermons that carry the tones of Black preachers along with the grace and power of a bard.
I ran across a poem of his the other day, one I’d never read before. It gave me such a lot to think about, especially in these days and times. Johnson connects the music of the spheres and of creation with the songs of the people which express their feelings, strengthen them in hard times, and bolster their faith in a God who was and is always with them.
We have listened to the sounds of great composers, compositions and songs that lift our hearts and inspire us in various ways. The spirituals, created and sung by slaves in the fields, around the fires in the evening, and in church, spoke of their lives and struggles as well as the stories from the Bible that taught not just the stories themselves but principles of Christian living.
Some spirituals like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Steal Away” gave them directions and signs to look for if they escaped slavery and headed north. What would Christmas be without “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”? Or Holy Week without “Were You There?” What would campfires at church camp be without “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” or “Go Down, Moses”? We have learned these songs and love them, but have we ever thought more deeply about them? Have we ever used them in our own struggles and trials and found hope and deepened faith in them?
We all have songs that come to mind in different situations, be they stressful or happy. Maybe it’s a musical version of a prayer or a psalm, a hymn or a song we heard on the radio when we were young. It could be a song of our ethnic history or our geographical area. Perhaps even a lullaby or a song we learned from our grandparents. Music is part of our lives, and part of our faith tradition. Johnson understood this as he spoke of the songs of his people, the music of unheralded bards whose names are known to God alone but whose music still echoes in our hearts and minds.
Johnson reminded his readers that the songs their ancestors had sung are still part of the musical literature. From Girl Scouts to high-school choruses to church choirs, even from the floor of the House of Representatives, people still sing them and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of the tunes and the words. But the closing line is perhaps the crux of the entire poem, the explanation of why these songs are so important.
You [the singers] sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. The songs are our guides to freedom in Christ. They are guides for us to live Christian lives, to think, to pray, and to give thanks to God every day. The music will sing us, members of all races, from the slavery of sin to redemption by grace, from idols of wood and stone to faith in the living God.
*”O Black and Unknown Bards,” found at Poemhunter.com; accessed 6/16/16