Timeline: Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Mar 8, 2021

Archival recording of Langston Hughes:

“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.”

That is an archival recording of poet Langston Hughes reading his work The Negro Speaks of Rivers. These poignant words were a lifeline to composer Margaret Bonds who set them to music and used them like a compass for all of her creative output.

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Bonds was born Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors in Chicago, in 1913. Her father was a physician and an outspoken advocate for civil rights. He founded an alternative medical association for black physicians at a time when they weren’t allowed into the American Medical Association. Margaret’s mother was an accomplished church musician and a member of the National Association of Negro Musicians.

Margaret’s parents divorced when she was four. She lived with her mother and not only took her maiden name, Bonds, but also her love for the piano. Margaret Bonds wrote her first piece Marquette Street Blues at the age of five. Growing up, the Bonds’ home was a destination for many African-American musicians and artists. Some of them, like composer Florence Price, became her early instructors.

In 1933, Margaret Bonds performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and became the first black performer in that organization's history.

At the age of 16, Bonds attended Northwestern University for her Bachelors and Master in Music. It was a hostile environment for a young African-American woman. Margaret was allowed to study but not allowed to live on campus. She called it a “terribly prejudiced place.” Nevertheless, she was an active composer during this time. In 1932, she wrote Sea Ghost which won the Wanamaker Foundation Prize. The next year, she performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and became the first black performer in that organization’s history.

In 1939, Bonds moved to New York City and settled in Harlem. There she edited and copied music, working in the popular music scene. An adaptation of her song Peach Tree Street was even used in the film Gone With the Wind. In 1952, she began a performance career and established the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society; a group of African-American musicians performing works by African-American Composers.

She became active in the Harlem Renaissance, reaching out to poet Langston Hughes. The two had been friends for years but now they developed a close collaboration. Bonds set a great deal of Hughes’ poetry, and Hughes began writing librettos for Margaret’s music. Together they created Shakespeare in Harlem and Three Dream Portraits as well as other works.

After Langston Hughes passed away in 1967, Margaret Bonds moved to Los Angeles. Her work Credo was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1972, just months before her unexpected death at the age of 59.

Bonds was a composer who wore her heart on her sleeve. She left behind a legacy of activism and artistry, paving the way for many African-American musicians to follow.

Find out more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.