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James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards"

Updated on November 22, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

James Weldon Johnson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "O Black and Unknown Bards"

The speaker in James Weldon Johnson’s "O Black and Unknown Bards" celebrates the important spiritual achievement that mere slaves, oft thought the lowest rung on the ladder of society, managed to leave for future generations. Johnson has understood that through their spiritual singing to the Divine, these slaves were striving to unite their souls with God.

O Black and Unknown Bards

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 sang 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.

William Warfield recites "O Black And Unknown Bards"

Commentary

First Stanza: The Genius of Slaves

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?

The speaker wonders how black slaves had the ability to fashion those beautiful, soulfilled songs. These songs have revealed that these musicians were in tune with a heavenly realm, not of this earth. They somehow came to understand and create with, "The power and beauty f the minstrel’s lyre."

Although his questions cannot be answered, as they are essentially rhetorical in nature, he uses them to state quite clearly that these individuals were in tune with part of themselves that many fail to realize even exists. The body may be whipped and suffer, but the soul cannot be beaten, nor can it suffer. The uplifting nature of these wonderful soulful hymns demonstrates the power of the spirit over the body.

The speaker then queries, "Who first from midst the bonds lifted his eye?" He knows that instead of lifting the eye, the natural, common tendency is to pity oneself and continue to look downward, become hate filled and angry at one’s fellow humans for their ignorance.

The speaker is aware that the beautiful songs unveil a spiritual level of being that can only be cherished and treasured for their qualities. The speaker understands that instead of self-pity and angst, these soul singers were looking to God with a faith that might seem to lost.

Second Stanza: A Free Ranging Spirit

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"?

In the second stanza, the speaker refers to four widely sung spiritual: "Steal Away to Jesus," "Roll, Jordan, Roll," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen," and he again wonders what slave could have created such an astounding tune.

The speaker then guesses that whoever the composer was, "His spirit must have nightly floated free." The capacity for musical freeom as he continued to suffer his body bound in chains amazes the speaker, who becomes convinced that only a strong, abiding faith could have led the songwriter to such brilliance.

The speaker then alludes to the well-known spiritual, "Nobody knows de trouble I see," as he asserts that the composer of this hymn felt the comforting, melodic sigh deep in his eing. The speaker, through his musing and questioning, is celebrating the wonderfully inspirational tone of these famous hymns.

Third Stanza: The Mystery of Moving in Chains

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.

The speaker reports with his following question that those slave/hymn writers were considered mere property: "What merely living clod, what captive thing, / Could toward God through all it darkness grope . . . ?"

The question suggests that those slaves were considered little more than mounds of unconscious clay, as they were required to function as the property of other men. In the face of such degradation, these singer/songwriters managed to compose their lyrics that sing eternally Godward. The divinity of the words cannot be missed by the perceptive observer as James Weldon Johnson was.

The speaker wonders how these sufferers with likely "deadened hearts," managed to produce songs heard "not with the ears." He wonders how such suffering souls could have, "sound[ed] the elusive reed so seldom blown." He is aware that their sound was so majestic that "melts the heart."

Fourth Stanza: Marvelous Spiritual That Helped Write History

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.

The speaker avers that is not even likely the great German composer, no doubt referring to Mozart, could have created a song, "Nobler than ‘Go down, Moses’." He notes that its "bars / How like a mighty trumpet call they stir / The blood."

The speaker compares those notes to the songs that military men have employed as they perform heroic valorous deeds. He states that the music of these marvelous spirituals helped write history.

Fifth Stanza: The Fiery Spirit of Servitude

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.

The speaker again stresses the strange fact that those so depressed with the servitude of toil were able to display their fiery spirit, these simple children, these black slaves, who are gone, forgotten, unknown, yet they were capable of "stretch[ing ] out upward, seeking the divine."

They did not allow their souls to become degraded by seeking to acquire only physical comfort; these glorious forbearers looked Godward and acquired a measure of immortality that even the more well-known composers will likely not soon know.

Sixth Stanza: Slave Singer and the Blissful Reality of Spirit

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 sang 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.

Finally, the speaker notes that these slave singers did not compose lays about the deeds of kings and cultural heroes. They did not sing for the purpose glorifying battle. They did not offer "exulting pean." But they did "touch[ ] in chord with music empyrean." Yet, they were not aware that they "sang far better than [they] knew."

Those slave/singers created hymns that continue to live on. Their musical creations were so vital that they "sang a race from wood and stone to Christ." Their spiritual songs have lifted their fellows and generations to come from mere physical existence to the blissful reality of spirit.

Biographical Sketch of James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. The son of James Johnson, a free Virginian, and a Bahamian mother, Helen Louise Dillet, who served as the first black, female school teacher in Florida. His parents raised him to be a strong, independent, free-thinking individual, instilling in him the notion that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after graduation, he became principal of the Stanton School, where his mother had been a teacher. While serving as principle at the Stanton school, Johnson founded the newspaper, The Daily American. He later became the first black American to pass the Florida bar exam.

In 1900, with his brother,J. Rosamond Johnson, James composed the influentional hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which became known as the Negro National Anthem. Johnson and his brother continued to compose songs for Broadway after moving to New York. Johnson later attended Columbia University, where he studied literature.

In addition to serving as educator, lawyer, and composer of songs, Johnson, in 1906, became a diplomat to Nicaragua and Venezuela, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. After returning to the United States from the Dipolomatic Corps, Johnson became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1920, he began serving as the president of that organization.

James Weldon Johnson also figures strongly in the arts movement known as the Harlem Rensaissance. In 1912, while serving as the Nicaraguan diplomat, he penned his classic, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Then after resigning from that diplomatic position, Johnson retured to the States and began writing full time.

In 1917, Johnon published his first book of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems. This collection was highly praised by critics, and helped establish him as an important contributor to the Harem Renaissance Movement. He continued to write and publish, and he also edited several volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).

Johnson's second collection of poems, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, appeared in 1927, again to critical acclaim. Education reformer and best-selling American author of the early 20th century, Dorothy Canfield Fisher expressed high praise for Johnson's work, stating in a letter to Johnson that his works were "heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed."

Johnson contined to write after retiring from the NAACP, and he then later served as professor at New York University. About Johnson's reputation upon joining the faculty, Deborah Shapiro has stated:

Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.

At age 67, Johnson was killed in an automobile accident in Wiscasset, Maine. His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people. Johnson's creative power rendered him a true "renaissance man," who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American Literary Scene.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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