by: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

      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 sting 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.

"O Black and Unknown Bards" is reprinted from The Book of American Negro Poetry. Ed. James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922.




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