The Congressional Chorus will presents “Let Justice Roll” at the National City Christian Church in northwest D.C. on June 1.
The centerpiece of the concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m., will be a performance of African-American composer William Grant Still’s groundbreaking, historic and rarely performed 1945 choral ballad, “And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” an unblinking assessment of the history of racial violence in this country.
In addition to a chorus, the composition includes a narrator and woodwind quintet as well as a contralto soloist who plays the mother of the young lynching victim.
William Grant Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera and is most well-known for his “Afro-American Symphony.”
However, it was his 19 minute “And They Lynched Him on a Tree” that was his most forthright attempt to make Americans confront and acknowledge this country’s history of racist violence. Still’s score is based on a poem by American poet Katherine Garrison Chapin.
Discussions with the composer’s family, who control rights to the score, revealed that requests for copies of the piece have been much higher in the last two years than at any time since its publication. Since its premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 1940, there have been fewer than 35 documented performances of Still’s choral ballad. It appears that the last time it was performed in DC was in 1940 at Howard University, just six months after its New York premiere.
The June 1 concert will be the kickoff concert for Congressional Chorus’ five-day “Civil Rights Concert Tour” to Alabama and Georgia July 3-7, during which the chorus will perform in numerous historic civil rights sites in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta in collaboration with the Grace Chorale of Brooklyn from New York City.