And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940)


And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940)

As a part of "From Song Came Symphony," Conductor Thomas Cunningham, Chorus Master Courtney Carey, Contralto Lucia Bradford, Baritone Lawrence Craig, the Brooklyn Ecumenical Choir (Chorus of Mourners), Ad Hoc Chorus (Lynch Mob), and the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra perform William Grant Still’s choral ballad “And They Lynched Him on a Tree” (1940). A work of great immediacy, Still wrote the work for two choruses; an all white lynch mob, and a black chorus of mourners of the murdered man.   

The story begins directly following the lynching. The lynch mob revels in their deed before retiring to their homes. Soon after the murdered man’s mother and a chorus of mourners emerge to grieve. At the end of the work the two choruses come together, but not in any measure of solidarity or resolution, but more so as a combined Greek chorus proffering a warning. This work is also an early example of Still’s remarkable ability to synthesize his avantgard training with Edgard Varèse, with more conservative models of composition and his own lived experience as a black man in America. Still, although he publicly downplayed the role of race as an impediment to his career, was a keen observer of America. He completed the work while an anti-lynching bill was able to pass the House of Representatives, but unable to advance in the Senate. Still said: “It is my sincere hope that this [piece] will accomplish some good, and that it will come to the attention of those who have perhaps not thought much about the subject. Then I also pray that it will outlast the purpose for which it was written.”  

Alain Locke, dean of the Harlem Renaissance (and editor of the seminal text "The New Negro"), was a fundamental figure in William Grant Still’s life (1885-1978) and specifically in the creation of “And They Lynched Him on a Tree.” It was Locke who initially sent the poem by Katharine Garrison Chapin to Still and even reviewed the work’s premiere: “[It] universalizes its particular theme and expands a Negro tragedy into a purging and inspiring plea for justice and a fuller democracy.” This idea of a “fuller democracy” was further explored by Still in his 1944 work “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy," the subtext of which pointed to the cruel irony of soldiers of color fighting for freedom abroad that they did not experience at home.  

The concert took place on Wednesday, May 8th, 2019 at 7:30pm in the Langston Hughes Auditorium of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Performance Venue: 

Langston Hughes Auditorium of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.


Still, William Grant

Date of Composition: 


Performing Artists:

  • Lucia Bradford, contralto

  • Lawrence Craig, baritone,

  • the Brooklyn Ecumenical Choir (Chorus of Mourners)

  • Ad Hoc Chorus (Lynch Mob)

  • Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra

  • Thomas Cunningham, conductor

  • Courtney Carey, chorus master