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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

Margaret Bonds and The Ballad of the Brown King

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Some Historical Errata, Corrigenda, and Addenda



As December nears, so do more performances of one of Margaret Bonds’s most important and best-loved works: The Ballad of the Brown King, on a text that Bonds solicited from Langston Hughes. The cantata is a milestone in musical history not only for its musical beauties (what composer and critic Carl Diton, in connection with the original 1954 version, called its “clear, iridescent harmonies”), but also for having used its poetry and music to point out that a Black man played an important role in the frequently whitewashed Christmas story. That Black man was the magus Balthasar (Balthazar) who was described in the eleventh century by Manegold von Lautenbach, ca. 1030 – ca. 1103), a.k.a. Pseudo-Bede, as “a dark, fully bearded king.”


As is well known, since the premiere of its revised and extended version on 11 December 1960 The Ballad of the Brown King has been a staple of the yuletide season in African American musical communities. But recent years have seen an increase in the work’s popularity, fueled in part by growing general interest in Margaret Bonds but mostly by the beautiful recording of Dr. Malcolm J. Merriweather’s chamber-orchestra arrangement, which was released by the Dessoff Choirs that was released on Avie in 2019.


That increased popularity is of course something to be celebrated – but it has a downside as well, because most performances are now attended by recycled false information about The Ballad of the Brown King that circulates even in seemingly reliable sources: the cantata’s increase in popularity has been tarnished by widely disseminated misinformation about its entry into the musical world. (Please note: I, too, have recycled this information in previous posts. As soon as this post is up, I will go back and correct the errors there.)


What follows is an attempt to head off at least some further recyclings of that bad information. I’ll start with the description of the premiere of the revised version given in Dr. Helen Walker-Hill’s important chapter on Bonds in her seminal book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, since the essentials of this account seem to be the starting point for the bad information mentioned above. Then, on the basis of the flyer for the 1960 performance and Margaret Bonds’s own typed and hand-annotated mock-up for the program, I’ll identify the errors and provide a few supplemental points of information.


Here’s what Walker-Hill says:


p. 153: In December 1960 Bonds’ Christmas cantata with a text by Hughes, Ballad of the Brown King, received a gala performance at the Clark St. YWCA and was televised by CBS. . . . Ballad of the Brown King was published by Fox in 1961.

And:

p. 178: Ballad of the Brown King. Orchestrated version first performed on 11 December 1960 by New York City College Orchestra, conducted by Margaret Bonds, with Church of the Master choir, conducted by Teddy Stemp, at the Clark Street YMCA, broadcast by NBC television.

These remarks are both about the premiere of the revised version of the cantata, which was premiered on 11 December 1960. Here is the flyer for that performance:


Here is Margaret Bonds’s own original program (which was then typed and photocopied, along with an interleaf that provided all the texts):


And here are the necessary corrections:

  • The December 1960 Clark St. performance was at the YMCA, not YWCA (as the sentence on p. 153 says).

  • That performance was not televised by CBS or any other network. A CBS affiliate would televise the cantata in 1961, but there’s no evidence that the broadcast was national, as the original statement might suggest.

  • The premiere of the revised version of the cantata was not with orchestra, but rather with piano duet. (Whether “piano duet” here means two pianos or one piano, four hands is unclear, but the latter is more likely. Vexingly, no piano-duet autograph survives for The Ballad of the Brown King.)

  • Margaret Bonds did not conduct.

  • Margaret Bonds was one of the pianists. The other was Evelyn Wallace, who was the regular organist of the Church of the Master.

  • The performance didhave a conductor, but this was not “Teddy Stemp.” It was Dr. Theodore (Teddy) Stent (1924-2018), a medical doctor who obtained his degree from Meharry College in Nashville (alma mater also of Margaret Bonds’s father, Monroe Alpheus Majors) and had served as tenor soloist with the Fisk Jubilee Singers before his long tenure as Minister of Music of the Westminster Choir of the Church of the Master.

A few additional points to round things out:

  • Although the December 1960 performance was not broadcast on television, it was recorded. Sadly, that tape, like the piano-duet autograph, is now missing or lost. (“Lost” is more-or-less definitive; “missing” means that its whereabouts are currently unknown but it may be found.)

  • Walker-Hill’s information might be taken to indicate that Sam Fox published Bonds’s orchestration of the cantata in 1961, but in fact that publication was of a (newly prepared) arrangement for piano solo. Bonds’s orchestration was not published until 1962, and that is also the likely year in which the orchestration of the revised version of the cantata was prepared.

  • The vocal forces of the premiere included, in addition to the Westminster Choir of the Church of the Master, soprano Charlotte Holloman, also Ida Johnson, tenor Edward Roche, and baritone McHenry Boatwright as soloists.

  • The concert concluded with a community sing and also included Bonds’s setting of Go Tell It on the Mountain.

  • Finally, the concert was produced by the Emergency Committee for the Southern Freedom Struggle, led by none other than Maya Angelou. It was presented as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


 

Looking back over this post, I feel as if its tone is cranky, curmudgeonly. That’s not the spirit or intent, though. I’m not trying to criticize others’ work, but only to do what scholarship is always supposed to do: essentially, to collaborate with their efforts to get the story straight. Dr. Walker-Hill’s 2002 chapter on Margaret Bonds was itself a monumental undertaking and part of an even more monumental work. Dr. Walker-Hill did what she did partly to start a scholarly and musical conversation that was long overdue, and she certainly knew that no work of scholarship is ever perfect, that while perfection is the ultimate goal of all scholarship, its more immediate objective is to make it easier for others to do better later, correcting and supplementing earlier work as needed without having to do what Dr. Walker-Hill did – without having to give the story its first written iteration.


In this case, that story is the story of one of the modern era’s most beautiful and historic masterpieces. So I’ll close this post by offering a shout-out to all those who, this December and beyond, will lift their voices in song to share The Ballad of the Brown King with a world that desperately needs its beauties and wisdom.

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