About this Artist
Born in 1913 in Chicago, Margaret Bonds saw her early years characterized by her engagement with the community of black intellectuals and artisans that defined Chicago’s black elite. Bonds was identified early on as a musical prodigy, first receiving piano lessons from her mother, Estella. Margaret’s development, however, was jettisoned by her more direct engagement with the black churches, conservatories, benevolent and social organizations, and arts-based organizations that sustained Chicago’s black concert aesthetic. Also key to her development was the cultural activity that took place in her mother’s home. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Estella Bonds’ home at 6652 Wabash Avenue had become the epicenter of Chicago’s budding Renaissance movement, serving as part boardinghouse for those who needed assistance, food pantry for the tired and hungry who passed through Chicago, part cultural salon where aspiring artisans engaged with composers such as Will Marion Cook, Noble Sissle, and William Dawson; concert artists like Lillian Evanti and Abbie Mitchell; and noted writers, painters, and sculptors. By 1927, black Chicago was already uttering premonitions of a promising career as a concert pianist for Margaret Bonds. However, the young musician’s aspirations extended much further. Bonds briefly studied harmony with Florence Price and arranging with Dawson, but experienced significant growth in the development of her compositional voice during her years at Northwestern University. By 1932, her compositions began to garner some attention, as evidenced by her work Sea Ghost winning first place in the song category in that year’s Wanamaker competition. As the decade and the Great Depression stretched on, both women would draw inspiration from the diversity and vibrancy of Chicago’s music scene.
In the years that followed Bonds’ celebrated performance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, she not only continued to concertize, but also found substantial work writing pop songs, producing jazz arrangements, and writing for theater productions. The eclecticism of sound that framed these different professional settings provided some of the primary emblems that mark Bonds’ compositional voice—beautiful melodies, sensitive settings of poetry, rich and colorful harmonic settings, and complex rhythmic patterns. Her navigation of diverse professional spaces and a growing social circle, which came to include poet and activist Langston Hughes, significantly shaped Bonds’ perceptions about the social responsibility of black artisans.
The alignment of Bonds’ music with the progressive political activity that became the mid-century black civil rights movement can first be traced back to her professional connections with the Negro Theatre Project in Chicago and the infamous nightclub Café Society in New York. It was in these environments that Bonds’ radical consciousness surrounding blackness blossomed, and she gradually morphed into the persona of artist-activist. In the 1950s, when some black composers struggled to couple black idioms with atonality and serialism, Bonds continued to nest black cultural narratives in neo-Romantic settings tinged with harmonies, rhythms, and nuances drawn from gospel, blues, and jazz. Prominent examples include art songs such as The Negro Speaks of Rivers and the Dream Portraits, which featured poetry written by Langston Hughes, spiritual settings such as He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, You Can Tell the World, and her signature solo piano work, The Spiritual Suite.
It was also during this period that Bonds became immersed in cultural and intellectual circles that propelled the black liberation movement into a larger nexus of campaigns that challenged discriminatory practices throughout the South. Like many, she was inspired by the activism of Dr. King and engaged in benefit concerts that financed the work of movement organizations. Many of her compositions written during the late 1950s and early 1960s bear the influence of the movement, especially the cantatas Ballad of the Brown King, Simon Bore the Cross, Montgomery Variations, and Credo. Ballad of the Brown King and Simon Bore the Cross are both large-scale choral works that amplify the biblical legacies of African people by focusing respectively on the Magi who visited Christ shortly after his birth and on Simon of Cyrene, who was ordered by the Romans to bear Christ’s cross as he was marched to his crucifixion. Montgomery Variations, one of the few orchestral works in Bonds’ œuvre, historicizes the first two chapters of the mid-century black civil rights struggle through a musical program that surveys the beginning of the movement in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ends with the uncertainty spurred by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Structuring the work as a series of variations based on the spiritual I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, Bonds situates it clearly in the context of the protest music that extended out of the movement during this period. The same is true for her last large-scale work, Credo, which draws its text from W.E.B. DuBois’ 1904 poem bearing the same name. By 1972, the year of Bonds’ sudden death, the imprint of her bold and radical representations of blackness through her music was evident in the music and consciousness of the emerging generation of black composers.
The musical legacy of Margaret Bonds illuminates her place in the larger genealogical lines of black women musicians, intellectuals, educators, and artisans who served the needs of their communities in ways that reflected ritualized cycles of cultural preservation and progression extending back to their ancestral homeland of Africa.
Adapted from an essay by Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Music at Miami University (Ohio), specializing in African American music.