From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Little Mistress Winfrey and James Weldon Johnson

(James Weldon Johnson)
By the third year of Oprah Winfrey's life, she was “rendering recitations” in churches.  During a February 1991 Academy of Achievement interview, Winfrey said that she recited the sermons of James Weldon Johnson in churches all over Nashville. 

These weren’t just any sermons – they were spellbinding renditions of themes ranging from Creation to Judgment Day by a man who was as natural an orator as Oprah herself.  Johnson (1871-1938) was not only a gifted orator, but also a poet, songwriter, journalist, author, professor, lawyer, civil rights activist, anthologist, and politician.  His endeavors ranged from being Theodore Roosevelt’s U.S. consul in South and Central America to writing the melody for Dem Bones to being a major promoter of the Harlem

The sermons that Winfrey recited, Johnson’s most famous ones, were from his 1927 book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Johnson had categorized these as “folk sermons” in that they reflected the style of preaching he had heard so many times as a child.  In this folk style of preaching, essentially the same key sermons would be passed on from preacher to preacher, gathering momentum along the way.  His use of the trombone metaphor was in honor of the trombone’s ability to resoundingly express the wide range of human emotions.

Since (many May 21, 2011 warnings to the contrary) Judgment Day has not yet come, here’s a glimpse of
James Weldon Johnson’s interpretation:

And I feel Old Earth a-shuddering--
And I see the graves a-bursting--
And I hear a sound,
A blood-chilling sound.
What sound is that I hear?
It’s the clicking together of the dry bones,
Bone to bone -- the dry bones…

The vivid combination of Johnson’s descriptions and Winfrey’s renditions must have certainly made people
sit up and take notice when they heard such a mighty “word of the Lord.”


Copyright May 23, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke    All Rights Reserved

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