To America - (2009)
James Weldon Johnson
medium or high voice and piano
would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?
Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?
pages, circa 1' 15"]
James Weldon Johnson
text is drawn from Johnson's Fifty Years & Other Poems, The Cornhill
Company, Boston, 1917. While the text was likely intended originally to
refer to the black experience in the United States, the sentiment is without
argument a universal one, in the same way as the freeing of the slaves from
Egypt during the time of Moses was universal to many groups' expressing
their urge and need for freedom. Johnson addresses his questions "To
America." I do as well, in a time and age in which the sentiment for what is
often called the "Nanny state" seems to place municipalities, counties,
states and even the nation on a collision course with simple economics.
Idealism does not trump the unrestrained laws of the market place, as the
legal bankruptcy of a city like Vallejo, California, proves. When the
numbers do not add up, all the political sentiment in the world does not
remake simple arithmetic.
notes in recent Congressional discussions about so-called universal
healthcare that legal penalties of literally many years in prison for not
purchasing health insurance has been suggested by lawmakers. Healthcare or
fines and prison? The notion of economic slavery grows now, as nations'
public debt grows to mammoth proportions, and the phrase "intergenerational
debt" has entered the parlance. What is intergenerational debt if not
"tightening chains" in Johnson's fine imagery. What is debt service on
so-called public debt if not that which causes man's "dragging pace?"
Johnson argues against this, as do I.
duple meter introduction, serving also as a short bridge between the two
verses of the basic song form, leads to a dominant cadence. The 6/8 meter
which follows sings out a harmonic blues pattern with blue notes in melody
and accompaniment. The first phrase, "America," could begin the melody for
the "America, the Beautiful" but does not. Rather it serves to introduce
Johnson's several pointed questions which a century later remain sadly
unanswered, even assailed in the public forum.
last lines repeat the question, even as a demand for an answer. "How would
you like to have us?" For Johnson, the answer was free -- rising, eyes fixed
on a star, strong and with footsteps fleet. This is the charge for freedom,
and it is a challenge against that governance which would deprive men, as it
always has around the world, of such freedom as many today enjoy.
The score for
To America is available as a free PDF download, though any major
commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior
arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this