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

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. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers — like amusing animals in a zoo.

The Negroes said: “We can’t go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won’t even let us in your clubs.” But they didn’t say it out loud — for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.

One potent theme of this passage is that many of the Whites who came to enjoy the art and entertainment of Harlem went home to make their own (White) money off of whitewashed versions of that Black art. Jazz and blues were Black creations from the Jim Crow South, imported into the urban North — and they were the musical gold of the Black culture that moneyed Whites consumed in Harlem. But Blacks’ music was recorded and distributed by White-owned record companies, played on turntables sold by White-owned companies, and broadcast on White-owned radio stations. And it was imitated by White musicians. It is telling, as Juan Thompson noted in Ebony a few years ago, that the first recorded jazz album was made by White artists (the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) and the media eventually proclaimed Paul Whiteman “the King of Jazz.” The gatekeepers to the economic benefits of Black artistic innovation were White; the principal beneficiaries of that innovation were White; and the artistic and recognition of these innovations’ importance privileged Whites over Blacks. Meanwhile, the Black artists who had transformed America’s cultural landscape were eclipsed — left to scrabble up rent through rent parties as well as enduring the devastating and dehumanizing effects of racism and segregation, even in the urban North. The taste of this exploitation was all the greater when Hughes penned and published The Big Sea, for by then the economic vigor of the 1920s was a thing of past and the U.S. was in the depths of the Great Depression — an economic crisis that, like all political and economic misfortunes, affected BlPOC communities more than White ones.

But while these are probably Hughes’s most famous words about the exploitive nature of Whites’ cultural appropriation of Black culture, they are not his only ones. Another contemplation of this phenomenon — one that culminates in a celebration of the beauty of Blackness and an exhortation to Black self-uplift — is as succinct as it is poetic: the Note on Commercial Theater, likewise written in 1940:

This poem would also be set to music by the brilliant Margaret Bonds (1913–72), who had befriended Hughes in the basement of Northwestern University Library (because that’s where Blacks had to study: in the basement) while she was pursuing her Master’s degree in Music from that university, and who would be one of his closest friends and collaborators for the remainder of his life. In a 1967 interview, Bonds described her style as “jazzy and bluesy and spiritual and Tchaikovsky all rolled up into one”[1] — an apt description of her compositional polystylism, and of this song in particular. Foregrounded here are the bluesy and jazzy facets of her style, though the heartfelt melodies, emotional range, and intensity of the climaxes certainly betray the influences of spirituals and Tchaikovsky. Personally, I find Bonds’s handling of the poem’s last two lines especially powerful. The second- and third-to-last lines of Hughes’s poem end emphatically, with an exclamation point, while the final line is less emphatic, ending with a period — a resigned yet determined acknowledgment. But Bonds’s music reshapes this, so that the song ends more like this: “I reckon it’ll be me myself . . .yes, it’ll be ME!”

And now, in honor of Martin Luther King, jr., Day in the United States, bass-baritone Justin Hopkins and pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers Richards of the Antwerp-based #SongsofComfort team have released the world-premiere recording of this remarkable song. I shared my edition with Jeanne-Minette back early in 2020, and it struck a chord with her when she turned to it amid the cataclysm of the COVID-19 some months later. It’s available on the Songs of Comfort YouTube channel, beautifully videorecorded and edited by Andrew Richards. You will not want to miss this one:

Today, in celebration of Martin Luther King, jr., Day, and as the government of the United States prepares to turn the corner from most brazenly racist, exploitive, and oppressive regime of its history into one that aspires to be more inclusive, diverse, and economically empowering for the victims of racism and rogue capitalism than any of its predecessors, may our world draw inspiration from the lessons taught by Langston Hughes’s extraordinary poem and the music Margaret Bonds made of it.

By kind permission of the composer’s heirs, Bonds’s Note on Commercial Theater is slated to be published later this year by Hildegard Publishing Company (Bryn Mawr: Pennsylvania).

[1] Margaret Bonds, “A Reminiscence,” in International Library of Negro Life and History, ed. Lindsay Patterson (New York: Publishers Co., 1967), 190–93 at 192.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on January 18, 2021.



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