Affinities: Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes

Before I begin, there are just a few people that I have to thank.  First, Ms. Jane Gottlieb and my advisor, Dr. Joel Sachs of the Juilliard School;  the Presser Foundation for making it possible to extend my research on this topic to include: the Helen Walker-Hill collection at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago; the Northwestern University Alumni archives, and the Langston Hughes Papers at the Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.  Finally, I have to thank the performers this evening.  I first met Clarissa, when Brett had asked me to turn pages for him.  He was accompanying her audition.  It was around the corner from my apt, so I said yes.  Clarissa, you were stunning that afternoon.  After she had gone into the subway, Brett and I looked at each other, and we knew that she would be perfect for this project.  Not to mention, she shared my not-so-secret passion for all things Law and Order.  So Clarissa, thank you. And Brett, where do I begin.  From Yale, Timothy Dwight, to New York, and sneaking you in to practice on the fourth floor of Juilliard.  We’ve grown up together, and it is truly a blessing to have you in my life, not only because of your musicianship, but because of your friendship.  Brett, thank you.

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"In the beginning there was the word…your words in the basement library.  Thank you for ‘SELECTED POEMS.’  I picked up the book and began to search for something…"

Margaret Allison Bonds was born on March 3, 1913, in the city of Chicago.  Her parents, Dr. Monroe Alphus Majors and Estella C. Bonds were both well-established figures in the black community, and they provided their daughter with a nurturing environment in which she could develop her musical talents.  Her mother, in particular, was to have a strong influence on Margaret’s musical upbringing.  For many years, Ms. Estella Bonds served as the organist and choir director at Berean Baptist Church – when Margaret was old enough, she would accompany her mother at the piano on Sunday mornings.

Margaret’s parents divorced when she was just four years old, but her mother’s house quickly became known as a gathering place for prominent black artists passing through the South Side of Chicago.  Among them included a young black female composer, Florence Price.  During the 1920s, Ms. Price and her two young children moved in with the Bonds for a period of time, and it was from her, that the younger Bonds received her first formal lessons in composition.   As a pianist and aspiring composer, Bonds quickly emerged as one of the community’s most promising prodigies by the time she entered Northwestern in 1929. 

While the university gave Bonds opportunities to study piano with Emily Boettcher Bogue and vocal composition with Carl Beecher, it was at Northwestern where Bonds experienced her first “prolonged” taste of “Whites Only” discrimination. The university did not provide housing for its African American students, and black female students were prohibited from using the school’s swimming pool facilities.  Bonds sought refuge in black art, and it was during this period that she was first introduced to the words of Langston Hughes.  Years later, Bonds recalled:

"It was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry.  I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security.  Because in that poem Hughes tells how great the black man is.  And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me."

Bonds’s discovery of Hughes’s poetry, and especially, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” played a significant role in her maturing sense of identity.  And perhaps, the poem’s ability to resonate with a young Bonds stems from the fact that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was written during Hughes’s own struggle with developing a personal sense of racial consciousness.

In June of 1920, Hughes graduated from high school.  While he should have been looking forward to attending Columbia University in the fall, he knew that he could not enroll without financial support from his father.  Hughes’s parents had separated when he was young, and his father eventually settled in Toluca, Mexico.  Hughes’s father despised blacks, and this caused the antagonistic relationship between father and son.

The more his father hated blacks, the more Hughes loved them.  And it was his love for his people that would inspire him, as he later vowed, to “write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far-away lands would read them – even after I was dead.”  Nevertheless, in that summer of 1920, Hughes needed his father, and so he traveled down south from Cleveland, and across the border into Mexico.  But he was full of anxiety, and as the train hummed across the Mississippi and into Missouri, Hughes took out a pen:

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.

The poem juxtaposes images of death and immortality.  And you can sense a looming cloud of hopeless despair;  however, the speaker is saved, Hughes was saved, and Bonds would be saved, by holding onto the strongest of all faiths, that which is rooted in the culture of their people.

In 1936, Bonds set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and it was published in 1942. 

At the beginning of the piece, the piano introduces weary, plodding rhythms with occasional stirrings of motion.  The left hand dives into the deepest ranges of the piano. And from the beginning, soundscape is heavy with burden.  However, as the voice sings, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young,” the heavy chords are lifted, the minor key turns into major, and the music becomes rhapsodic and sensual.  As the speaker travels from Africa to the Americas, the music recalls the rhythms of New Orleans ragtime.  When the “muddy bosom turns all golden in the sunset,” the music responds with an off-in-the-distance reminiscence of the work’s opening material, before the return of the line, “I’ve known rivers.”

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains one of Bonds’s most frequently-performed art songs, and it was also one of her personal favorites.  Speaking about the piece, Bonds remarked:  “I’ve done more complicated things, but I don’t think I’ve ever surpassed it.”

Exactly when Bonds and Hughes met remains unclear – scholars have generally concluded that it was sometime in 1936.  However, given that the first surviving letter from Bonds to Hughes is dated January 10, 1936, it is quite possible that they had crossed paths in 1935.  Regardless, Bonds remembered the meeting well.  Years later, she recalled:

"I actually met him…after I came out of the university.  The first time I saw Langston was at Tony’s house in Chicago, Tony Hill, the ceramicist.  Finally, he came to my house.  My family rolled out the red carpet.  We were like brother and sister, like blood relatives." 

By August of 1936, Bonds had already set a number of poems and lyrics by Hughes.  They included, “Joy,” “Winter Moon,” “Poème d’Automne,” “I’ve Known Rivers,” and “Love’s Runnin’ Riot,” which was later recorded by Duke Ellington.  Bonds was most proud of her songs with text by Hughes.  In February of 1937, she wrote to him:  “I think the songs I’ve done of yours are the best I’ve done outside of ‘Romey and Julie.’”  Bonds would send Hughes melodies, request lyrics, and of course, tell him when she felt certain phrases didn’t suit her musical conception.  In the summer of 1940, they worked on Tropics After Dark with writer Arna Bontemps, the musical Shakespeare in Harlem in 1958, a Christmas cantata, titled The Ballad of the Brown King, which was first premiered in 1954 and revised in 1960, and finally, an Easter cantata, Simon Bore the Cross

Over 90% of Bonds’s works contain text, thus confirming the importance to Bonds of words and ideas.  While Bonds would also set the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bonds’s gift for text-setting is most evident in her refined and poignant settings of Hughes’s poetry.  Hughes’s personal secretary Raoul Abdul would later note:  “[Langston] thought Margaret’s music was ‘simple and direct.’  He liked her particular settings of his poems better than those of any other composer during that time with who he was well acquainted.” 

For the songs in Three Dream Portraits, Bonds had selected poems from Hughes’s 1932 collection, titled, The Dream Keepers and Other Poems.  While it was intended as a book of poetry for children, the poems “Minstrel Man,” “Dream Variation,” and “I, Too” confront the controversial issue of racial identity. 

Specifically, “Dream Variation” and “I, Too” were written during Hughes’s travels abroad, and the words take on deeper meanings, as Hughes witnessed segregated systems of racial inequality around the world. 

In June of 1923, Hughes set sail as a crewmember on a ship headed for Africa.  When the West Hesseltine docked at its southernmost port, just off the coast of Angola, Hughes’s initial sensual impression of Africa had turned into a grim awakening to the harsh realities of European colonialism.  Reflecting on this experience, Hughes later wrote: 

The white man dominates Africa.  He takes produce, and lives, very much as he chooses…And the Africans are baffled and humble.  They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower before the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws, made in Europe for the black colonies. Hughes’s trip to Africa profoundly influenced his writing from this period, of which included “Dream Variation.”

And just one year later, after a brief sojourn in Paris, Hughes was joined by Harlem Renaissance writer and intellectual Alain Locke.  In August of 1924, the two traveled from Paris to Italy, with plans to return to the States, shortly thereafter.  However, Hughes was met with a set of unfortunate circumstances.  On the train from France to Italy, his passport and wallet were stolen.  While Locke continued on home, Hughes remained in Genoa, until he could find a ship headed for the US. 

And he waited, with little money for food, and it would be a month before a ship departed with an all-black crew.  Sitting alone in the Italian city, Walt Whitman’s “I hear America singing” became Hughes’s “I, too, sing America.”  Watching ship after ship leave without him because of the color of his skin, Hughes not only longed to be home, but longed for a home that would embrace him, not in spite of his blackness, but because of it.

In 1959, Bonds completed Three Dream Portraits, and Ricordi published the cycle that same year.  In May of 1959, tenor Lawrence Watson gave the first performance of the work in its entirety. 

In the opening song, “Minstrel Man,” the irony of the speaker’s laughter prevents the (white) gaze from seeing the speaker’s inner agony.  The movement gradually becomes louder, as the “Minstrel Man’s” continuous laughter, singing, and dancing only mask his increasing frustration.  He finally states, “You do not know, I die.”  Bonds repeats this line, and the song ends in quiet defeat.  The music of the second movement, “Dream Variation,” is infused with foreign harmonies and large vocal leaps.  The music is whimsical, as if to suggest the speaker’s desire for freedom of movement.  The poem begins:  “To fling my arms wide in some place in the sun/To whirl and to dance till the white day is done.” 

The music of the final movement, “I, Too” begins with a self-assured quality, more so than that of the previous two songs.  In Bonds’s setting, however, the opening declamation, “I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother,” gives way to resignation by the end of the piece.  While the vocal line soars, singing:  “They’ll see how beautiful I am,” it quickly wanes, wistfully, on the final words of the poem “ – and be ashamed.”  The piano introduction returns to close the movement, but this time, quietly.  Bonds had set these poems in the 1950s.  The civil rights movement was just beginning to gain national attention, and there remained much to be done.  For African Americans, equality was still very much a dream.

In as early as 1936, Bonds had mentioned a performance of her settings of “Poème d’Automne” and “Winter Moon,” two of the four songs that would be included in Songs of the Seasons.  The complete work was written primarily for the James Weldon Johnson collection at Yale University.  In 1940, Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten began to receive contributions for the archive, and among those who donated included George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Roland Hayes, William Grant Still, and Langston Hughes.  By November of 1955, Hughes had sent Bonds the final two poems:  “Summer Storm” and “Young Love in Spring.”  In a letter to Hughes, November 3, 1955, Bonds seemed satisfied with “Summer Storm.”  She wrote:  “‘Summer Storm’ will be in boogie-woogie, and it seems I can do it as is.” 

However, she wanted Hughes to make some changes to “Young Love in Spring.”  In the letter, Bonds asked him to revise the final section of the poem.  She also proposed an alternative title, such as, “What is Spring.”   And she continued:  “Spring must be a waltz and I hear some music that is ‘knocking me out’ it’s so sentimental and so like spring.”  While Hughes conceded to her suggestion to revise the final section, with regards to the title, Hughes had the final say, and it remained as is.  On March 25, 1956, Lawrence Watson premiered Songs of the Seasons at Town Hall in New York City.  Bonds had sent Hughes a copy of the recital program, on which she added, “the poems were fun and so much work.  As [American composer] Roy Harris used to say, ‘I think this will get them.’”

The first song, “Young Love in Spring,” celebrates the arrival of the season, and the amorous joy of warmer months to come.  However, in “Poème d’Automne,” the text reads with cold, dark undertones.  Winter is imminent, and it will arrive too soon.  The brief, hopeful waiting for love dissipates, for the final line reads:  “and then the sharp, sleet-stung caresses of the cold will be their only love.”  Here, the vocal line is most chromatic, and the text is set in a recitative-like manner at this dramatic shift in the poem.  “Winter Moon” follows; and the speaker first observes:  “How thin and sharp is the moon tonight.”  The unceasing monotony of the accompaniment evokes the stillness of this dark, winter evening, pierced only by the slivered glow of the crescent moon. 

Bonds eloquently captures the stark opposition of darkness and lightness with the lowness of the bass moving slowly underneath static, right hand chords in the upper registers.  Finally, “Summer Storm” begins, and the low, rumbling piano introduction plunges the listener into the thick of the storm.  When you listen to this movement, you may notice that it is particularly challenging for the accompanist.  And although Bonds herself was an accomplished pianist (In June of 1933, Bonds would make history as the first African American female to appear as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), she admitted the movement’s technical difficulties.  In February of 1960, Bonds wrote to Hughes:  “I’m going to rewrite the accompaniment of ‘Summer Storm’ in spots.  It’s too difficult for ME to play.”

In August of 1939, and with thirty-seven dollars in her pocket, Bonds moved to Harlem, where she would live for the next thirty years.  On her early days in New York, Bonds admitted:  “No job was too lousy;  I played all sorts of gigs, wrote ensembles, played rehearsal music, and did any chief cook and bottle washer job just so I could be honest and do what I wanted.”  As a performer, composer, and teacher, Bonds worked tirelessly.  And her pride in her African American heritage inspired her to remain active in local cultural organizations, such as the Harlem Cultural Council and the Harlem Jazzmobile.  In the 1960s, Bonds received a number of awards and honors for her accomplishments.   In 1963, she was listed on the Honor Roll of Outstanding Negro Women.  In 1964, she was honored with a “Woman of the Century Award,” as well as the first of three ASCAP awards. 

Finally, on January 29, 1967, Northwestern presented Bonds with an Alumni Merit Award for her work as an Ambassador of Goodwill and Public Relations.  From the institution where she had experienced a great deal of prejudice, this honor was especially meaningful for Bonds.

However, in 1967, her longtime friend and collaborator, Langston Hughes, passed away, and Bonds was ready to leave New York.  Shortly thereafter, she moved to Los Angeles, where she would live for the next five years, until her death, in 1972.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding her unexpected death have posed challenges for researchers and performers interested in learning about Bonds and her music.  In addition, the majority of her music remains either unpublished or out of print, a reflection of the barriers she had faced as a black female composer.  Nevertheless, Bonds persevered. 

Following a performance of their Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, on November 1, 1961, Bonds noted to Hughes that they had left her name out as the composer of the work.  She then added:  “Which goes to prove that the woman creative artist too frequently not given credit for a good job even after she does it; but this one ‘goes right on.’  I enjoy the challenge!”

The richest resource for learning about the life and works of Margaret Bonds remains the approximately 300 letters of correspondence between Bonds and Hughes.  They gossiped, talked shop, and exchanged Christmas cards;  but above all, they shared an understanding of their roles as artists.   

In response to the question, “what is a poet,” Hughes wrote: “a poet was a human being and each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country.” 

In 1964, The Washington Post featured an article on Bonds.  It was titled, “She Has a Musical Mission:  Developing Racial Harmony, Heritage Motivates Composing Career.”  In the article, Bonds expressed her views on music:  “It has to be human, and people have to like it; it has to move them spiritually and intellectually.” 

As is evident in their works that challenge negative perceptions of African American identity in favor of the celebration of beauty in blackness, Bonds and Hughes shared a mutual understanding of their roles as cultural ambassadors for racial uplift.  And it was over this idea, that art should be for and of the people, all people, that their spirits met.

"In the beginning there was the word… Your words in the basement library.  Thank you for ‘SELECTED POEMS.’  I picked up the book and began to search for something.  I used to think of your poetry as ‘Langston’s,’ but yesterday I knew they don’t belong to you at all.  You gave them to all of us.  So it is with music.  I write and give it away to whosoever will carry or listen to the message.  Carry this little light with you in your travels."

© 2018 Dr. Ashley Jackson