For Liz Pauly

Today’s the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think what a waste of gunpowder and sky. (Aimee Mann, “4th of July“)

Some years ago, I sang in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the cavernous Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. My friend Elizabeth Pauly conducted the choir of Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), which took part every year. I was an add-on, bolstering the tenors. The program included what is often called “The Black National Anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Lift Ev'ry Voice ms

J.W. Johnson, “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” Holograph.

This remarkable song was written around 1900 by two brothers. The text is by James Weldon Johnson; the music is by J. Rosamond Johnson, who trained at The New England Conservatory of Music, one of the music schools that accepted African-Americans at that time. Florence Price graduated from NEC some years later. The poem offers a hopeful vision of America, before the systematic oppression of Jim Crow and the other horrors of the twentieth century dimmed that prospect. On Johnson’s ms, the poem is called “National Hymn. Written for celebration of Lincoln’s birthday.”

In our MLK, Jr. Day performance, there was no pianist, so the choir began unaccompanied:

“Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…”

As we sang, a man glided over to the Steinway and joined the choir for the next phrase—in the correct key, with thunderous tone.

The effect was electrifying.

I was impressed with the pianist’s ear; he knew what key we were singing in. And it struck me that knew this piece (which was only vaguely familiar to me) by heart. And I was wowed by his derring-do, to rise to the occasion and provide the harmony that was lacking.

The introduction to “Lift Up Ev’ry Voice” is a persuasive progression, one worth a little study. If I were teaching music theory now, I would use it as a model to introduce secondary dominants. There is nothing arcane here, but the writing is imaginative, artful and ever-new, and it’s a fine illustration of harmonic movement expressing the “harmonies of Liberty” in the text. My audience here is a music theory class, like my Theory II class at Eastern Montana College, c. 1987.

At this point, casual readers may skip to the Conclusion. Nerds read on.

The harmony in twelve steps:

notation for Lift Ev'ry Voice

A-flat major

  • 1. A great melodic “lift” from 7 up to 3 as V leads to I.
  • 2. V 43 of VI thrusts us immediately out of the home key.

What’s the effect of leaving the key on the downbeat of bar 2?
Consider another possibility for this chord: if the bass were G-flat, a French augmented 6th chord:French augmented 6th chord in notation

  • 3. VI becomes I (F)

 F major

  • 4. iv
  • 5. V Consider that while chords 2 and 5 are both C7 chords, they resolve differently.
  • 6. vi Deceptive move!

Compare the effect of the deceptive motion of 5 to 6, which parallels 2 to 3.
Consider that 3 and 6 are both submediant chords in their key, but how different the effect!

  • 7. VI is reinterpreted as IV, moving us back toward A-flat major.
  • 8. vii° of V
  • 9. I 64 (V substitute) Tonic reasserted.

A-flat major

  • 10. vii° of vi
  • 11. V7
  • 12. I

Now: for keyboard practice, play the introduction around the circle of fifths.


As an anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is far more vivid and expressive than our current flag-waver. As you probably know, there’s nothing patriotic or particularly American about that tune—an 18th-century English paean to the least of the minor Greek poets. (See my arrangement of “To Anacreon in Heaven.”) After the rockets are spent, “Lift Up Ev’ry Voice” reminds us of the power of music to inspire us to higher ideals. It’s an international anthem.