“I DEDICATED IT TO MOTHER”

On the Origins of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand by Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds is justly celebrated for her inspired and inspiring arrangements of spirituals — the body of African American ancestral melodies that W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 declared “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.” From her first published collection (the Five Spirituals commissioned by Hortense Love and published in 1946 [New York: Mutual Music]) through to her last major work, the Scripture Reading for narrator and orchestra (1971), she continually returned to Black American spirituals as sources of inspiration and articulations of her unswerving religious faith.

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand (first published New York: Mercury Music, 1963) is arguably the most famous of Bonds’s spirituals. It has since become a staple of modern concert, recital, and church life and is in many ways familiar, with new editions issued by Theodore Presser and Hildegard Publishing Company. But a new document uncovered in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture sheds new light on the personal circumstances of which this deeply moving envoicing of Margaret Bonds’s abiding faith was born.

Namely: she wrote it through tears of grief at the death of her mother, Estella C. Bonds (1882–1957). Here’s how Bonds explains it in a letter of 15 June 1957 to her “beloved aunt” Victoria Jeffries in California (New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Margaret Bonds Papers shelfmark MG 873 Box 2, folder 6). After explaining that her mother “went quickly and easily as one says a GOOD SOUL goes,” and that she knows “she’s happier now than she ever was here despite all my attempts to make her so,” Margaret says that she “know[s] she DOES UNDERSTAND.” She then goes on to explain how the tragedy of her mother’s passing coincided with her artistic inspiration:

This passage is in many ways a portrait in miniature of Margaret Bonds, Composer. For one thing, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand shows the quintessential oneness of life and work, of faith and music for Margaret Bonds. It was occasioned another artist’s “need,” and Bonds channeled that need into her own processing of the complex emotions and profoundly personal pain at her mother’s passing: her faith that “everything is going to be alright” translated itself into this arrangement of the ancestral melody. Her faith became music; she used it to transform sorrow into inspiration.

And finally, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand is a profoundly beautiful musical tribute to Estella C. Bonds — Margaret’s first teacher, tireless supporter and mentor; the personification of almost everything she held dear in life. He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand is dedicated “to Mother” not on the autographs and not in the printed editions, but in Margaret Bonds’s creative life, as recounted in the letter of 15 June 1957.

Enough of all that — it’s time, now, to listen to Margaret Bonds’s final words to her beloved mother: “He’s got you and me right in his hand.” It’s time, now, for us to use Bonds’s music to share in those final moments of grief and love, to celebrate her extraordinary gift for taking a profoundly intimate moment of mother-daughter love and loss and making it something that, through her music, brings light and joy to “the whole world.” This is a stunning live performance given by my dear friend and collaborator Katerina Burton, soprano, with Brent Erstad, piano at a concert of the Capitol Hill Chorale directed by Frederick Binkholder on June 4, 2022:

A final word: Katerina’s credentials as champion of Margaret Bonds are remarkable: it was she who, deep in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, made the heart-rendingly beautiful world-premiere virtual recording of “Especially Do I Believe in the Negro Race” from Bonds’s setting of the W.E.B. Du Bois Credo, with Prof. Frederick Binkholder and the Concert Choir of Georgetown University; and it was she who — likewise during lockdown — made the extraordinary world-premiere virtual recording of Bonds’s powerful feminist song cycle Four Songs on texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay. My gratitude to Katerina for bringing her artistry to bear in helping to bring to light, and to life, the music of Margaret Bonds that has been so long silenced is deeper than words can express.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on July 1, 2022.

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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

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