Margaret Bonds, Langston Hughes, and the Note on Commercial Theater

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In the chapter titled “When the Negro Was in Vogue” of his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes offers a famous passage about White culture’s economic exploitation of Black culture during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance:

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied [sic] whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles . So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. …


On Performers’ and Listeners’ Rediscovery of Florence Price’s “Clouds” (ca. 1947)

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LIKE ABOUT THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY of the more than three hundred and seventy pieces that Florence B. Price (1887–1953) is known to have composed, Clouds is neither discussed nor even mentioned in any of the currently available writings that are fueling the ongoing Florence Price renaissance — not even in the authoritative life-and-works study written by Dr. Rae Linda Brown, edited by Guthrie P. Ramsey jr., and published in June 2020 by the University of Illinois Press. I published Clouds with G. Schirmer in January 2020, and in that same month tireless Price champion Lara Downes released the world-premiere recording, charting the way for future interpreters and listeners. The piece has since taken on a life of its own in further performances — about which more anon. …


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Margaret Bonds (1913–72) was no stranger to humanity’s never-ending quest for peace.

Peace is a major theme in many of her works, and her music offers a beautiful lens into the meaning of peace. One might say that it lets us hear the sound of peace.

This Christmastide, the sound of peace, à la Margaret Bonds, is newly and recently available in two works and several ways:

Bright Star: this “Christmas Song” was written by Bonds on a poem by her friend and frequent collaborator Janice Lovoos (1903–2007) and published by Solo Music (Beverly Hills) in 1968. As I’ve explained elsewhere, that’s the year in which Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and the depth of the senseless and deadly violence of the Vietnam War. So it’s no coincidence that this song, scored by Bonds for SATB chorus with optional piano, is not a recounting of the Christmas story, but rather a prayer for peace — a plea for the titular bright star to lead us to peace as it led the magi to the cradle of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem so long ago. …


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“We haven’t any Negro books at all”: this is what the head librarian of Yale University, Bernhard Knollenberg (1892–1973), told Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), an artist, writer, and leading patron of the Harlem Renaissance, when he learned that Van Vechten was pondering “the question of what would be my ultimate disposal of [the] collection of Negro books, manuscripts, letters, photographs, phonograph records, and music.”[1] As a result of that pointed observation the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection was founded in 1941. …


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In February, 2020, G. Schirmer published a set of three piano pieces by Florence B. Price (1887–1953) under the collective title Three Roses. Price composed these three exquisite character pieces in September, 1949. The manuscripts were part of the oft-reported discovery of Price manuscripts in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009, but until February, 2020, they remained unpublished, unperformed, and absent from all of the literature about Price and her works. …


BRIGHT STAR: A CHRISTMAS SONG, BY MARGARET BONDS AND JANICE LOVOOS

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Late in 1968, Margaret Bonds (1913–72) published her setting of Janice Lovoos’s (1903–2007) Christmas poem Bright Star (Beverly Hills: Solo Music). The two had collaborated earlier that year on several compositions that, thanks to the heirs of Margaret Bonds, will soon receive their world-premiere edition at Hildegard Publishing.[1]


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Like CNN’s Don Lemon, Florence Price (1887–1953) did not have an uncle named Ned. Nor did she have an Uncle Joe.

I’ll explain that peculiar opening phrase later. For now, suffice it to say that Price did write a suite for piano solo that was originally titled Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Joe and later retitled Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned, before eventually being abbreviated and retitled yet again (“Two Photographs”). And that work, in its Ned iteration, has just now received its properly attributed world premiere, more than seventy years after Price penned it. At just over five minutes long, it’s a short piece — but a meaningful one. …


A Weekend of Triumph for Black Women — and Some Musical Highlights

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This past weekend, after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had received more than 4.5 million more votes than Donald Trump and thus signaled the beginning of the end of the most destructive and divisive era in the entire history of U.S. politics, a special wave of joy attended Vice-President-elect Harris’s status as the first woman, the first woman of color, the first HBCU graduate, and the first daughter of immigrants to hold that second-highest elected seat in the country.

I was among those who clasped hands in joy as Vice-President-elect Harris proclaimed, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.” But it is important to recognize that the Vice-President-elect’s victory is but one thread in what Dr. Melissa Givens terms “a rich tapestry of beauty”[1] that will one day hang in place of the threadbare dirty white canvas of racism, male chauvinism, and misogyny that has not just characterized the reign of horror that has been the last four years of U.S. politics, but also prevented Harris’s victory from happening any time before now in the 244 years of this country’s history. Here’s an @officialcocoadiaries meme that shows Stacey Abrams, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Kamala Harris to summarize that victory through the operative lens — the lens of women’s rights, civil rights, feminism, womanism, and inclusive…


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A Doubly Rediscovered Song in a Brilliant New Performance by the #SongsofComfort Team

Just in time for the most economically and politically critical election since 1932, the Antwerp-based #SongsofComfort team has resurrected a ballot on behalf of the working class cast by Langston Hughes (1901–1967) and Florence B. Price (1887–1953) in October 1941. Below I’ll comment on this newly published piece of consummately timely musical political commentary, with two epilogs. First, though, you should listen to it in its world-premiere recording by Philadelphia-born bass-baritone Justin Hopkins and South African-born collaborative pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers:

Poem and Music

Hughes and Price may have met sometime in 1940,[1] but they were almost certainly in contact by the time she composed the Monologue for the Working Class in October 1941 — for Hughes never published this poem with the text that Price set. …


A New NPR show by Lara Downes Puts the Year 2020 on Trial — and Will Win

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine inThe American Crisis,” in the inaugural issue of The Pennsylvania Journal in December, 1776. “[T]he summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Paine, of course, was writing about the crisis of the U.S. colonies’ war for independence from Britain and attempting to boost morale among American troops in the wake of their loss of New York City to British troops, particularly to stem the tide of American soldiers who, faced with seemingly overwhelming odds, had elected to leave the fight and return to their homes and families. …

About

John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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