Sing a Song: A masterwork is born
Augusta Savage presents Grover A. Whalen, president of the New York World’s Fair Corporation, with a replica of The Harp in 1939. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Also in 1937, Savage received the commission for the work that became her masterpiece. The New York World’s Fair hired her to create a sculpture for their 1939 exhibition that would celebrate African Americans’ contributions to music. “It seemed important to recognize the really worth while and distinctive gifts to our American culture of the different races that have constituted our population,” Fair Corporation president Grover Whalen told The New York Times. “We are planning to do this in the fair in various ways. One obvious way is the choice of subjects for the decorative sculpture and murals of the fair buildings and grounds and the selection of artists to execute them.”
Despite these stated ambitions, Savage was one of only three African Americans and twelve women whom the fair hired as artists. Nonetheless Savage took her charge to design a fitting tribute to Black American music to heart. For her inspiration, she turned to her old friend from Jacksonville, James Weldon Johnson.
Savage at work on the Harp. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The Johnson brothers wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday at Jacksonville’s Stanton School on February 12, 1900. It subsequently spread throughout the country, becoming known as the “Black national anthem.” Several aspects of the song and its history would have resonated with Savage. First is the lyrics, which speak to both the hardships Black Americans had faced through their history and to their perseverance in working for a better future. This closely reflected Savage’s own lived experience of adversity and persistence.
Second was the role that children played in the hymn’s emergence as a national anthem. The Johnsons had taught the song to a choir of school children in 1900, and it was these students who kept it alive. As Johnson wrote in his autobiography Along This Way, “the schoolchildren of Jacksonville kept singing the song; some of them went off to other schools and kept singing it; some became school teachers and taught it to their pupils.” For Savage, teaching the next generation was an even greater calling than being an artist, and the story of the hymn’s spread was an instantiation of her philosophy.
Savage and an assistant working on the Harp. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Official World’s Fair postcard of the Harp. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Savage worked on the sculpture for two years, taking a leave from the Harlem Community Art Center to do so. Johnson himself never saw it completed, as he died in a car accident in 1938. The sculpture was a temporary version of plaster, colored black like basalt; Savage hoped to raise the money to cast a permanent version in bronze. The towering 16 foot piece took the form of an enormous harp, with a chorus of singing children representing the strings. The instrument’s sounding board was the arm of God, reflecting and inverting the song’s line, “Shadowed beneath Thy hand/May we forever stand.” A kneeling man holding a sheet of music served as the harp’s pedal.
The Harp on display at the 1939 World’s Fair. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Another view of the Harp. Courtesy of the New York Library’s Paul Gillespie Collection of World’s Fair Materials.
Though the sculpture is conventionally known as the Harp, Savage evidently preferred the title Lift Every Voice and Sing, further tying it to the Johnson brothers’ song. The Harp stood in the courtyard of the fair’s Contemporary Arts Building, just past one of the entrances, and it proved to be a massive hit, a highlight of the fair. “Miss Savage’s creation stands in a niche at the focal point of the building front and is commented upon by practically everyone who passes”, wrote the Baltimore Afro-American.
To raise funds, Savage sold bronze miniatures of the piece as souvenirs. However, despite the Harp’s popularity, Savage never made enough to cast it in bronze. As such, like all the art from the World’s Fair, it was demolished by bulldozer when the exhibition closed in 1940. Today, the miniatures, postcards and photographs are all that survive of this lost work of art.
The Harp’s long shadow
Mural by Miami artist 2Alas (Andrew Antonaccio) inspired by Savage’s Harp, located on Hogan Street in Downtown Jacksonville.
One of the bronze miniatures that Savage sold during the World’s Fair, on display at the Ritz Theater and Museum.
Savage never again received a major commission. In 1945 she left Harlem for Saugerties, New York, where she earned a modest living from art sales and other jobs. She died in 1962, largely forgotten by the art scene she had helped cultivate.
The 21st century has seen a resurgence of interest in all things Savage, the Harp in particular. In 2018, Jacksonville’s Cummer Museum organized an exhibition, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, that subsequently toured the U.S. Since then, there have been repeated calls to recreate the Harp in Jacksonville and elsewhere. One idea, currently being explored by the City of Jacksonville and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, would incorporate a recreated Harp at the planned Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, located on the Johnson family homesite.
Eight decades after it was destroyed, the Harp is still inspiring new generations of artists and advocates. Undoubtedly Savage, creator and teacher, would find this a fitting tribute. As she said in 1935, “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work. No one could ask for more than that.”
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.