Margaret Bonds

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Years: 1913-1972

Place of birth: United States

Margaret Allison Bonds was born in 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. She was an American composer, arranger and teacher. Margaret was one of the first African-American female composers and performers to gain
recognition in the United States, remembered today for her popular African-American spiritual arrangements and her frequent collaborations with the poet Langston Hughes.
We suggest listening to the antiphon "Minsstrel Man" while you continue reading:
Margaret Bonds and poetry
Images (1)

Why did she established such a close relationship with poetry?

Bonds first experienced racial discrimination as a music student at Northwestern University and eventually found refuge in the poetry of Langston Hughes. “I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I found the wonderful poem The negro speaks of rivers (2) and I am sure that it helped my feeling of security, because that poem tells how great the black man is. And if there is any doubt, that it should be, there is a situation in which restaurants don’t serve you and you go to university, in which you are sacrificing yourself, trying to finish school, and I know, that poem helped to save me."

From this moment, poetry played an important role in maturing towards her sense of identity. Their tie may also be established as a result of Hughes's own struggle to develop a personal sense of racial awareness. Bonds establishes a series of poems and lyrics by Hughes; She would send melodies to Hughes and request lyrics, thus, she composed “The Ballad of the Brown King”; or “Minstrel Man” and “Dream Variation” that confront the controversial issue of racial identity.
1 - GeorgeTown University Library
2 - Complete poem in Discover More
3 - Afrocentric voices in Classical Music, Wordpress.
Margaret Bonds wrote her first composition at the age of five. Throughout her career she experienced success as a performer, being the first African-American pianist soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform the Piano Concerto in D minor by composer Florence Price, as well as a composer in the world of classical music. In addition, she expanded her skills beyond the limits of the genre, including work for the film studios.

Troubled water

Therefore, her works include elements of different styles such as jazz, calypso or African-American spirituals. Her work Troubled Water (1967) is an exapmple of a piece based on an African-American spiritual. In this case, it is Wade in the Water that contains instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to successfully make their way to freedom.

For complete lyrics and original song video you must go to Discover More.

Much of her works are written for voice, which later led to her entering the theater as a musical director and open her way to compose two ballets. Due to different causes throughout her artist's life and in relation to her social context, much of Bonds' music was lost after her death in 1972. According to musicologist Helen Walker-Hill, from more than 200 compositions of Margaret Bonds only 75 exist today. Of those 75 scores, only 47 were published during her lifetime. (4)
4 - From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music.

- Sea Ghost (1932)
- The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1942)
- The Ballad of the Brown King (1954)
- Songs of the Seasons (1955)
- The Three Portraits (1959)
- Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho (1959)
- Mass in D minor (1959)
- Fields of Wonder (1963)
- Credo (1965): The text is a masterpiece of a strategy of dual-perspective: its verbiage of racial harmony and scriptural imagery of children in green pastures beside still waters is nested in a fierce pride in Black lineage and self, condemnation of war, and (most importantly) the overarching thesis that racial equality and justice were not things that were granted by humans (let alone White society), but rather were divinely ordained.

Most of her pieces for voice consist in texts from the poet Langston Hughes due to her inspiration by the poem “The Negro Speaks Rivers” and her close and familiar relationship with the poet. Thus, The Ballad of The Brown King was one of her award-winning recordings.

- Don’t You Want to Free (1938): obra musical para teatro
- Wings over Broadway (1940)
- Tropics After Dark (1940)
- Shakespeare in Harlem (1959)
- Montgomery Variations (1964)
- Troubled Water (1967): recognized piece by the artist. It is inspired by the classical sonata form and uses the spiritual "Wade in the Water" as its main theme.
Discover more
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” poem

“I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Poem of Langston Hughes

Samantha Ege

Samantha Ege is British pianist and musicologist, who directs her work towards the interpretation of African-American composers among which are: Margaret Bonds and Florence Price.

Her album Four Women, brings together five piano works by four different composers. She travel through a wide range of styles and influences including African-American folk songs and classical sonata forms in Florence Price’s Sonata E minor, through modernist exploration in Vítězslava Kaprálová's musical identity, evocations of Edwardian childhood of Ethel Bisland, to spiritual jazz and blues melodies influences in Margaret Bonds music.

Link to his web: Wade in the water

The African American spiritual song, Wade in the Water, was first performed by the Fisk Jubilers Singers in 1901.

Complete score:

Wade in the water
wade in the water, children
wade in the water
God's goin' to trouble the water

See the band all dressed in white
The leader looks like the Israelite

See the band all dressed in red
It looks like the band that Moses led