Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

A Melody Forever In Memory

A song, its words and range of notes, can sustain you.  It can raise your spirits by pushing you forward to bigger and brighter accomplishments.  This song can connect you to another single soul or to a multitude.  This music can and will remain in our collective memories.

When you think of music or a song, the first thing which comes to mind is not usually that it can be a rallying point for a significant group of people but perhaps this should be.  Sing a Song: How "Lift Every Voice and Sing" inspired Generations (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, August 6, 2019) written by Kelly Starling Lyons with illustrations by Keith Mallett imagines a story beginning at the beginning of a birth of a song. Like many births it starts loud and strong but is quietly carried from heart to heart.

Before you were born, a girl learned a song.

This girl's principal was James Weldon Johnson.  His brother was John Rosamond Johnson.  Together they composed a song to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday.  This girl sang this song over and over until she and 499 other children sang it loud and strong on February 12, 1900.

She continued to sing it to her students, and to her husband as they traveled from Florida to settle in Pennsylvania.  And she sang it to her son.  This son heard both his mother and father humming or singing this song as they planned their futures or needed to raise up their work-weary souls. At church, one day, this son, this boy, sang this song like his mother had.

Back straight, head high,
heart and mouth open . . . 

Through World War II, discrimination and joining the NAACP, the son, now a man sang.  His daughter learned the melody.  It carried her through the news that rocked our nation, the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

And so, it was that this song moved through generations, from parents to children.  It followed them during protests, during trials won and lost as an attorney, and to joyfully celebrate family reunions.  It was sung at college graduations and the opening of businesses.  One fine day, another girl, 116 years later sang this same song as crowds gathered and the first African American president and members of another family rang a bell to signal the opening of a momentous building housing memories and contributions of the African American people in these United States.

As you read this narrative penned by Kelly Starling Lyons, you can feel something building inside you, something good and something powerful.  For the members of each generation, her descriptions of parents passing the learning of the words and the singing of the song to spouses and children are beautiful portraits of family and a larger community.  Her repetition of the words

back straight, head high, heart and 
mouth open

followed by verses from the Black National Anthem sung by the children actively engages readers.  Her inclusion of realistic historical struggles endured, and triumphs celebrated elevates and enlarges reader understanding and compassion.  Here is a passage.

And you know what?
Her little boy learned that song.
He listened to her hum it as she dreamed of
being able to teach again in her new home.
He heard his daddy sing it when the days
at the steel mill wore him down.

When you look at the open and matching dust jacket and book case, the color choices for the sky complement the child lifting her voice in song.  The luminous yellow, golden yellow and orange with the deep sky blue could either be a sunrise or a sunset, which is an excellent choice.  It reminds readers of the enduring quality of this song all day, every day.  The use of light and shadow on the face of the girl is a thing of beauty.  Can you hear her singing Lift every voice and sing?  To the left, on the back, is a continuation of the sky with four lines from the song placed near the top.

On the opening and closing endpapers on a canvas of pale purple are the lyrics to the song.  The colors in the sky are the background for the title and verso pages.  The illustrations by Keith Mallett 

were drawn freehand and painted digitally.  

They alternate between full-page pictures and double-page images.  The faces of all the people featured are full of warmth, passion and purpose.  Each visual regardless of the place and time has a portion which draws our attention.  Individual elements are authentic with respect to their historical perspective.  The designs in the fabric of the blankets around the infants are of importance.    

One of my many favorite illustrations is when the son of the first girl is singing the anthem in church.  A deep navy background enhances the arched stained glass window on the left.  The boy is standing in front of the window garbed in his choir robe of black with a purple collar and wearing a white shirt with a black tie.  His hands are crossed in front of him and placed over his heart.  His mouth is open in song with eyes mirroring his reverence for the words and music.  To his left and extending over the gutter are five other choir members.  They, too, are singing, but because of the lighting you feel as though the boy's voice is predominant.

Informative through an imagined but historical point of view Sing a Song: How "Lift Every Voice and Sing" Inspired Generations written by Kelly Starling Lyons with illustrations by Keith Mallett will have you seeking out as many renditions of the song as you can and soon you will be humming it, too.  This is a moving and memorable narrative with illustrations which envelope you.  Be sure to read the full page author's note at the end.  I highly recommend this for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Kelly Starling Lyons and Keith Mallett and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Kelly Starling Lyons has accounts on Facebook and Twitter.  Keith Mallett has an account on Tumblr.  At the publisher's website you can view the title page.  I hope you enjoy these renditions of Lift Every Voice and Sing.

You might want to read this NPR Music broadcast, Till Victory is Won: The Staying Power of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' which has links to other performances.

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