Skip to page content

Margaret Bonds

composer

About this Artist

A lifelong advocate of social and racial justice, Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) grew up in a relatively affluent family in Chicago, in a community of Black artists and musicians. Though her parents divorced when she was young, they were both supportive of her obvious musical talent. As a 20-year-old pianist, Bonds became the first African American soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As a composer, her experience was wide-ranging, including jazz arrangements, songs for children, film music, popular songs, choral music, and musicals, as well as classical compositions. As the years went by, though, if anyone had heard of her, it was usually because of her arrangements of traditional spirituals.

Pursuing degrees in both piano and composition, Bonds studied at Northwestern where she encountered high levels of racial prejudice. While there, she also discovered the poetry of Langston Hughes, which struck a deep chord, leading to a 40-year artistic bond of artistic collaborations, mutual respect, and shared enthusiasms. In 1936, she began to set his poems to music, and they collaborated on numerous projects, the most successful of which was a Christmas cantata titled The Ballad of the Brown King. Hughes convinced her to move to New York, where he had moved and had helped to launch the Harlem Renaissance.

Disconsolate after Hughes’ death, she moved to California to work in Hollywood. When she died at 59, without a will, her husband and daughter gathered papers from her LA apartment. Many of her compositions were lost, and some even ended up next to a dumpster before they were rescued from oblivion. Because she had no survivors, no one has known who owned copyright to her music. Fortunately, after decades of neglect, her time finally seems to have arrived, as much of her music is being rediscovered and even premiered almost half a century after her death.