James Weldon Johnson

Distinguished as a civil rights leader as well as a lyricist, novelist, poet, anthologist and international diplomat, Johnson achieved success in the musical world through collaborations with his composer brother John Rosamond Johnson. He is best known in the musical world today as the lyricist for his brother's song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."

Photo: James Weldon Johnson, half-length portrait at desk with telephone, between 1900 and 1920; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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    Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson’s career began as a lawyer and educator in his home state. In 1899, he and his brother moved to New York City to find a producer for their operetta. Though they were unsuccessful in this first endeavor, they did meet their future collaborator Bob Cole and become a part of New York musical circles. With Cole, the three went on to write dozens of successful songs for Broadway musicals, including “Under the Bamboo Tree” and “The Congo Love Song.” In 1906, they wrote and produced The Shoo-fly Regiment, an all-black musical. Johnson was the lyricist, and this marked his last endeavor in the musical theater business.

    However, his career expanded in other directions. He took foreign diplomatic posts in Venezuela and then Nicaragua. In 1912, his book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was published, serving as a central document of black musical culture of the time. Johnson’s anthology The Book of Negro American Poetry, published in 1922, was a pioneering work. His 1930 book Black Manhattan provides a history of musical theater and black theater in New York. Johnson went on to become the Executive Secretary of the NAACP and an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

    His poetry, even when not originally written for a musical setting, always keeps the musical ear in mind. This aspect has attracted many composers to set his verses, including Henry Burleigh, Otto Mortensen, and Wolfgang Fortner.

    –Christie Finn Source: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

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