John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Gospel According to Ray Charles

His version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a classic.

By - Jan 31st, 2017 10:39 am
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Ray Charles at the 2003 Montreal International Jazz Festival. Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ray Charles at the 2003 Montreal International Jazz Festival. Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

For African Americans 2016 had to be a bitter year, as they were losing the first black president, a powerful voice against discrimination in the White House and gaining a president heavily supported by white nationalists. The symbolism of Barack Obama’s victory eight years ago trumps (hate that word!) any critique of his imperfect tenure at the very top of the American pyramid. I loved the guy and the first-to-worst aspect of the presidential succession is going to be an adjustment. I’ll need some Gospel Music. Believers and nonbelievers, I hope, can find comfort in its generous and uplifting spirit.

The good news is there will be chance to bathe in that special glow on Friday, February 3rd at Turner Hall when the 4th Annual Gospel Jubilee will light the joint up. There will be an interesting mix of the traditional and more experimental reworkings from the the rich gospel catalog that gave birth to every kind of music you like. And that’s not an overstatement.

My choice of song this week, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” which is sometimes called the “Black National Anthem,” performed in this video by Ray Charles, will be delivered by SistaStrings at the Jubilee. We’ll get back to Ray, but let’s praise the Milwaukee music scene for a second. If you are jaded and think there’s nothing going on, or don’t get out much because the club scene is for kids, you have to treat yourself to this duo. Chauntee and Monique Ross, schooled in the classics on cello and violin, also grew up singing Gospel. This mix doesn’t seem like it would work until you hear it.

To get you in the mood for what should be a great concert, take a listen to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed by the man of the century, Brother Ray.

I had to decide between a bunch of versions of this historic song. Aretha Franklin sang it wonderfully of course, but the sound quality was so-so. Ray tore through it in his usual style on the Dick Cavett Show — need I say long ago? The sound was dialed in, as were Ray and his backup singers, every one of them sanctified and syncopated. There is a band, but you don’t see them, but you could bounce a dime off their tightness. And God bless him, Ray does what he always does — he makes you proud to be an American and grateful you lived in a time when he was alive.

I hope you’ve seen the biopic, Ray, because his life was an epic journey that would scroll a little too far for our purposes. In a nutshell, he suffered greatly and triumphed magnificently. Poverty, blindness, a tragic family history that left him alone in the world on a bus from Florida to Seattle, just out of school, because that was as far as he could go. There never would have been a movie if that was all there was to tell, because it was a common story. But he also was the first and most prominent artist to bring gospel, in all its raw power, to popular music. Short lesson — conjure up his early hit, “I Got A Woman,” then listen to “Must Be Jesus,” by The Southern Tones. Gospel to R&B to Rock & Roll. “Lift Every Voice,” is less earthly. The clouds part when this song plays and the sun shines on a dismal landscape. It should be on an endless loop for the next four years.

The song is also a Wiki page. After all, it was first a poem by James Weldon Johnson and a few years later it was put to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. This all took place way back at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The song and its message endure because change comes so slow and its message always seems to apply.

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 chastening 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 has 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

© James Weldon Johnson & John Rosamond Johnson

Guess which national anthem I like this better than. It has honesty where “The Star Spangled Banner” has bombast — brought to you by actual bombs bursting. “Lift Every Voice” also recounts a lot of history, even if a lot of it was hidden from our eyes. It’s an American song through and through. Our national anthem is an old English drinking song recast for patriotic purposes. The Black National Anthem is stitched, like a beautiful flag, from the fabric of something truly original and American. It’s inspirational and spiritual, with no swagger or triumphalism. It’s hard to sing, but well worth it.

The annual Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee supports Progressive Community Health Care Centers, an organization that ministers to the health of the body the way music does the soul. It offers affordable health care (watch that phrase disappear from the lexicon soon) to everybody. The rug is about to be pulled out from beneath the feet of the neediest members of our community. If that was all I had to get you across the threshold of Turner Hall Friday February 3rd, I’d still expect a throng. But we also offer America’s and Milwaukee’s greatest home-grown art form. I’ll be at the door… please trample me.

Buy tickets for Gospel Jubilee here.

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