Tuesday, December 27, 2022

God's Trombones by James Weldon Johnson

Source of book: I own this


Nearly 12 years ago (time flies!) I kicked off my annual Black History Month reading project with 50 Years and Other Poems by James Weldon Johnson. Back then, I hadn’t started the blog, but was just writing little notes on Facebook for friends and family. 


In addition to his impressive life as a lawyer and diplomat, Johnson wrote extensively - fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. While I have yet to read any of his prose, I did finally obtain a used Library of America edition of his major works, which includes all three of the genres he wrote in. 


In addition to God’s Trombones, I read an additional four poems which were selected from Saint Peter Relates an Incident, as these seemed similar enough to include. 


The idea behind God’s Trombones is the preservation of a particular art form, the “Negro Sermon,” as Johnson puts it in his preface. At the time (1927), he was worried that it was a disappearing art form. I could assure him that in fact, it has not disappeared, although it has evolved somewhat, as all art forms do. 


I myself experienced several during my teens. We attended a Charismatic church for a few years, one that was racially diverse, and also partnered with other similar churches throughout California for a combined summer and winter camp experience. This meant that, among other speakers, we got some African American men who could lay it down, complete with “Lord-uh” - if you know, you know. It truly is a performance art, with similarities to Spoken Word as well as Hip Hop. Also, Keith and Doug (and others I do not remember the names of), if you run across this blog, I have great memories of those evenings talking and arm wrestling and just hanging out. 


Johnson’s preface is fascinating in itself. I do not get the impression that he was particularly religious, but he believed that the sermon had a significant cultural and social role in the African American experience. He was dismayed by the white tendency to reduce the preacher to a comic figure, missing the key social role that went far beyond any jokes in the sermon. 


It was through him that the people of diverse languages and customs who were brought here from diverse parts of Africa and thrown into slavery were given their first sense of unity and solidarity. 


We white Americans tend to forget that Africa is a really big place, and is not some homogenous singularity, but is actually many nations, many ethnicities, and more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined. This creation of the “black” race was and is non-sensical, but was done to justify the exploitation of non-Europeans, of course. Johnson correctly points out the role in African American culture - the preacher served to unify the kind of diversity we might see if Europeans from Portugal to Ireland to Russia were all brought together, and exploited. The role of both the oppressor’s language and the oppressor’s religion in creating a common culture was significant and fascinating. 


The preaching tradition, while it has some similarities with other styles, is unique. Wordplay is abundant - just like it is in the Hebrew scriptures often taken as texts. Also in line with the most ancient of traditions, new spins and new applications are common - a modern day midrash. 


As one unnamed preacher Johnson remembers put it:


“Brothers and sisters, this morning - I intend to explain the unexplainable - find out the undefinable - ponder over the imponderable - and unscrew the inscrutable.” 


Johnson also explains in the preface two of his artistic decisions. First, the use of the trombone as the simile for the voice of the preacher. He feels that the underrated and incredibly versatile instrument is a better metaphor than the trumpet. While that instrument is commonly used to describe preaching or prophesy, Johnson feels the trombone has the greater range, a true voice, and less of the blaring quality. As a classical musician, I think he is on to something. People often do not realize just how central the trombone is to the brass section, or in how many ways it is used as part of the sonority of the orchestra. It plays pianissimo better than any other brass instrument, and doesn’t get thin when it gets soft. I think plenty of people who casually listen to orchestral music will think they are hearing horns, or even trumpets, when it is the trio of trombones. 


The second is his decision to forego the use of dialect. He explains that first of all, all speech is dialect, and the decision to render only some speech in dialect narrows the effect of the language. Thus, “negro dialect” tends to limit the expression to either a character who is “happy-go-lucky,” or full of pathos. In no case is the speaker perceived as powerful or wise in their own right. He also notes that while preachers used dialect in everyday speech, their “preaching voices” owed more to the elegance of the King James Bible than to any regional dialect. Indeed, listen to a Southern gospel preacher of any color, and the similarities are greater than the differences, and all of them speak “King Jameslish.” 


There are seven sermon poems in the collection, none of them particularly long, but they aren’t short either. This one, “The Creation” is one of the shorter ones, but gives some of the flavor. 


The Creation


And God stepped out on space,

And he looked around and said:

I'm lonely—

I'll make me a world.


And far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.


Then God smiled,

And the light broke,

And the darkness rolled up on one side,

And the light stood shining on the other,

And God said: That's good!


Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,

And God rolled the light around in his hands

Until he made the sun;

And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

Then down between

The darkness and the light

He hurled the world;

And God said: That's good!


Then God himself stepped down—

And the sun was on his right hand,

And the moon was on his left;

The stars were clustered about his head,

And the earth was under his feet.

And God walked, and where he trod

His footsteps hollowed the valleys out

And bulged the mountains up.


Then he stopped and looked and saw

That the earth was hot and barren.

So God stepped over to the edge of the world

And he spat out the seven seas—

He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—

He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—

And the waters above the earth came down,

The cooling waters came down.


Then the green grass sprouted,

And the little red flowers blossomed,

The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,

And the oak spread out his arms,

The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,

And the rivers ran down to the sea;

And God smiled again,

And the rainbow appeared,

And curled itself around his shoulder.


Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand

Over the sea and over the land,

And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!

And quicker than God could drop his hand,

Fishes and fowls

And beasts and birds

Swam the rivers and the seas,

Roamed the forests and the woods,

And split the air with their wings.

And God said: That's good!


Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at his sun,

And he looked at his moon,

And he looked at his little stars;

He looked on his world

With all its living things,

And God said: I'm lonely still.


Then God sat down—

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought,

Till he thought: I'll make me a man!


Up from the bed of the river

God scooped the clay;

And by the bank of the river

He kneeled him down;

And there the great God Almighty

Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,

Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,

Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;

This great God,

Like a mammy bending over her baby,

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till he shaped it in is his own image;


Then into it he blew the breath of life,

And man became a living soul.

Amen.      Amen.


One immediately noticeable aspect of this sermon is that the preacher treats creation as an epic myth, rather than as a detailed scientific explanation. Since I grew up under “expository preaching” in the very white evangelical subculture, it is immediately noticeable the details that are “wrong.” Which is silly, of course. The two creation stories in Genesis (yes, there are two conflicting accounts!) do not include cypress swamps, or God throwing light around and all that. But why not? The stories were always intended to be read as a metaphorical and theological re-telling of ancient pagan myths. The creativity to find modern expression in a new cultural moment is wonderful in this poem. I will also note that the description of God as a “mammy” creating humankind is actually very much in line with the feminine portrayal of God as creator. 


I really hope every reader can hear the cadences in their head when they read it. I can, and it brings me back to those memories of my youth. 


The other sermon topics include an opening prayer, a funeral service (“Go Down Death,” which is probably the most familiar to most people), the Prodigal Son, Noah and the Ark, Moses and Pharoah, and the Last Judgment. Many more could have been written, of course. 


I want to mention some of the poems in the other collection too, as these were quite good. Far too long to quote is the title poem, “Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day.” 


The gist of the poem is that in the long, boring centuries of eternity, the saints and angels, in order to relieve the monotony, ask Saint Peter to tell them stories of the old days. He then relates this story: the day of the Last Judgment has come, and all the dead have to rise and come back to life. One of those is the venerated “Unknown Soldier” in his famous tomb. Because the sealing job was so good, it doesn’t go well - the guy can’t get out. 


So, something had to be done. Well, all the notables of the South call out the masses to go free him - and indeed, to escort him to heaven themselves. 


The word went forth, spoke by some grand panjandrum,

Perhaps, by some high potentate of Klandom,

That all the trusty patriotic mentors,

And duly qualified Hundred-Percenters.


Should forthwith gather together upon the banks

Of the Potomac, there to form their ranks,

March to the tomb, by orders to be given,

And escort the unknown soldier up to heaven.


Compliantly they gathered from each region,

The G.A.R., the D.A.R., the Legion,

Veterans of wars — Mexican, Spanish, Haitian —

Trustees of the patriotism of the nation;


Key Men, Watchmen, shunning circumlocution,

The Sons of the This and That and of the Revolution;

Not to forget, there gathered every man

Of the Confederate Veterans and the Ku-Klux Klan.


The Grand Imperial Marshal gave the sign;

Column on column, the marchers fell in line;

Majestic as an army in review,

They swept up Washington's wide avenue. 


After much work and toil and sweat, well, things go wrong:


He, underneath the debris, heaved and hove

Up toward the opening which they cleaved and clove;

Through it, at last, his towering form loomed big and bigger —


" Great God Almighty! Look! " they cried, " he is a nigger! "


Surprise and consternation and dismay

Swept over the crowd; none knew just what to say

Or what to do. And all fell back aghast.

Silence — but only an instant did it last.


Bedlam: They clamored, they railed, some roared, some bleated;

All of them felt that somehow they'd been cheated.

The question rose: What to do with him, then?

The Klan was all for burying him again.


The scheme involved within the Klan's suggestion

Gave rise to a rather nice metaphysical question:

Could he be forced again through death's dark portal,

Since now his body and soul were both immortal? 


But the Klan is powerless. The soldier marches and sings his own way toward heaven, makes his way to the throne, and by that time, all Heaven is singing along with him:


Deep river, my home is over Jordan,

Deep river, I want to cross over into camp-ground.


Written during Jim Crow and the era of lynchings, this poem was a distinct middle finger to the 2nd Ku Klux Klan (and those other organizations whose white supremacy was ill-disguised at best.) It’s a thrilling poem to read. 


Another rather traditional poem was one that really struck me as unique. It is mostly in the Italian sonnet form (with a slight change to the rhyme), and meditates on death. But unlike so much of the classic poetic tradition, it waxes sublime not on nature, but on the city. 


My City


When I come down to sleep death's endless night,

The threshold of the unknown dark to cross,

What to me then will be the keenest loss,

When this bright world blurs on my fading sight?

Will it be that no more I shall see the trees

Or smell the flowers or hear the singing birds

Or watch the flashing streams or patient herds?

No, I am sure it will be none of these.


But, ah! Manhattan's sights and sounds, her smells,

Her crowds, her throbbing force, the thrill that comes

From being of her a part, her subtle spells,

Her shining towers, her avenues, her slums—

O God! the stark, unutterable pity,

To be dead, and never again behold my city!


While I am more of a nature -oriented sort, I admit that I also love the city. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and I still love the feeling of being below the sky scrapers, or wandering around the quirky markets and shops, experiencing the cacophony of cars and different languages, the diversity, and the bustle. This is a great poem for capturing in the last six lines something of that love. 


The final one I will feature is one that I could not have left out. It is perhaps Johnson’s most famous work, even if few seem to know he wrote it. Or that his brother J. Rosamond Johnson wrote the tune. 


Lift Every Voice and Sing


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 chast'ning 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 hast 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.


While there are so many wonder versions of this song, I am going with this simply stunning acapella version by Committed. Chills and tears - I am not kidding you. 

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