Growing up in Chicago, Margaret Bonds was surrounded by music. Her mother, Estella Bonds, was an organist and fixture of the South Side’s classical music scene. Her composition teachers included William Dawson and Florence Price; one of her dearest friends and collaborators was Langston Hughes. Langston was a major player and figure of the Harlem Renaissance, whose poetry inspired many composers of art songs (which we’ll get into a few months from now).
Margaret and Langston met in Chicago in 1936 and took to each other immediately; three years later, she called New York City her home. Soon, Margaret wasn’t only setting Langston’s published prose to music but asking him to write new stuff for her new music. One of these collaborations was a Christmas cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King.
The Ballad of the Brown King has nine sections featuring hymns and spirituals set in classical and gospel harmonies (Malcolm J. Merriweather arranged this version). It tells the story of the Magi Balthazaar, the wise African man who traveled to see the baby Jesus. On the surface, cantatas are much like oratorios: a genre with vocalists and orchestral ensembles with religious themes and no costumes or props. They were traditionally written for use in a church service, but by Margaret’s time, they had become stand-alone events.
The Ballad exists in two versions. The first premiered in 1954, but Margaret decided it needed to be bigger, grander. Remember, 1954 was the year the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional. It was a major civil rights victory, but the fight for equality wasn’t over; Margaret was very aware of that. She asked Langston to write two more poems for her cantata. She dedicated the piece to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This new version premiered in 1960 on TV with Margaret leading the New York City College Orchestra and Theodore Stemp conducting the Westminster Choir of the Church of the Master. One of the cantata’s movements, “Mary Had a Little Baby,” got so popular it was arranged and published in different versions: one for solo voice, another for women’s voices.
Margaret may have written her cantata for Christmas, but she and Langston were thinking beyond the holiday. They were creating when Black Americans were fighting for their rights: to vote; to hold a steady job; to buy a house where they wanted to live; to live their lives without the threat of violence. Margaret and Langston were reminding us that at one of the significant events in the Christian tradition was an African king adorned in gold and jewels. Black folks were–always had been–a part of the past. And that was no small thing.