THE VOICE OF MARGARET BONDS

Reflecting on Her Recorded Interview with James V. Hatch

I 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 he [Langston 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 (Helen Walker-Hill, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007], 156).

I’ve quoted it myself in my editions of her music, my forthcoming Cambridge UP book, and my in-progress Bonds biography for Oxford UP. I have long planned on listening to the complete interview from which that quote is excerpted (it survives in the Rose Library at Emory University and there’s a copy in the Helen Walker-Hill collection of the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder). But not until this past week did I actually get to do that.

I’ll never forget the experience.

I’ve read hundreds of Bonds’s letters, edited about ninety of her pieces, and immersed myself in her biography and context for years now, beginning with an unforgettable and totally accidental musical encounter in the mid-1980s. I had some sense of what her voice might sound like.

But now I know. Anyone else who’s interested to hear the actual physical voice of Margaret Bonds can do so by accessing the recordings in the “Oral History Interviews” portion of the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch archives at Emory University. It’s an extended and wide-ranging interview (about an hour and 14 minutes, all totaled), recorded in the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center, where she worked from 1969 until her death after her 1967 move to L.A. (a move that was originally planned as temporary).

Let me close this post, process the experience of hearing Bonds’s voice for the first time, by sharing a few impressions:

  1. She loved to laugh and had a beautiful laugh (also a deliciously mischievous giggle and a chuckle that gives voice to mirthful brilliance and delight in irony).
  2. A longtime smoker, she had a smoker’s cough; at one point it sounds like Mr. Hatch lights a cigarette for her. (This take-away makes me sad, since her smoking certainly did her health no favors.)
  3. She was an experienced interviewee, and she continually engages her interlocutors by asking whether they “know” this or that piece or person just mentioned.
  4. She was fifty-eight years old and by this point had written most of her nearly five hundred compositions, given thousands of lessons and played hundreds of recitals, given dozens of public lectures and interviews, interacted with artists ranging from Abbie Mitchell, Adele Addison, and Leontyne Price to Pat Boone and Peggy Lee, and poured her energies into social-justice causes ranging from benefits for The Fighting Jews of Europe during World War II to Civil-Rights benefits. She is still full of life here, full of her well-known ebullience, wit, and brilliance — but she also sounds tired. Very, very tired.
  5. This interview was recorded on December 28, 1971. Her final large composition, Scripture Reading, had been premiered in San Francisco just over two months before (October 22, 1971). Two months later she would be introduced to the great conductor Zubin Mehta, and three months later choral legend Dr. Albert McNeil, a longtime friend, would begin rehearsals for the planned performance of her setting of W.E.B. Du Bois’s iconic civil-rights Credo with Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (McNeil had already conducted the orchestral version in 1967.)

Finally: exactly four months after this interview, on April 28, Margaret Bonds would be found dead of a heart attack in her apartment. (She died on April 26.) She had moved to Los Angeles for a new beginning. She had bravely embarked on that path and the road was rising up to meet her. She wrote to her husband on March 27, 1972 that “at long last [she was] finally coming into [her] own.” But her life was cut short.

This interview came just in the nick of time. Had Mr. Hatch waited just a few months, the voice of Margaret Bonds would be lost to us forever — and that would be a tragedy.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on April 23, 2022.

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

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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.

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