John Michael Cooper
MARGARET BONDS, LANGSTON HUGHES, AND THE JOY OF “JOY”:
A Conspirare Premiere and a Gratuitous Youthful Photo
Langston Hughes’s poem Joy was first published in the collection The Weary Blues (1926), part of an astonishing outpouring of inspiration that was born after Hughes dropped out of Columbia University in 1922 and took a job working as a “saloon messman” aboard a decommissioned freighter. Although the poem is, on the surface, a simple story that will resonate with anyone who has ever worked up the courage to seek out the object of a crush, only to find them with someone else, it is also a parable – one that reflects Hughes’s conviction that the rough, ne’er-do-well seamen who were his shipmates in that pivotal year 1922 were, in his words, “the finest fellows I’ve ever met.” For the name Joy, it turns out, is an allegory, and the poem reflects the speaker’s surprise (signified by exclamation points after the last two sentences) that Joy/joy is to be found not in the hallowed halls of universities and churches, but rather in the arms of humble, working-class folk:
That portrayal naturally appealed to Margaret Bonds (whom Hughes would befriend in 1936, and with whom he would collaborate on many projects over the ensuing thirty-one years), who devoted her life to working closely with the poor and underprivileged and lifting them up in music.
The practice proves the point: Joy has a compositional longevity greater than any of Bonds’s other works – i.e., she returned to it in new arrangements more times (at least six), over a longer period of time (thirty years), than any other composition. That says much about how much the piece meant to her, about her belief in its message and her music.
So it’s something of a paradox that Joy has not been heard in modern memory. Its last documented performance took place – maybe – in 1966, when pioneering baritone Andrew Frierson (1924-2018) may have performed it in a recital in New York’s Town Hall. (I’ve not found confirmation that this performance occurred, only that Bonds showed it to Frierson prior to 4 March 1966 for use in that performance. If for some reason Frierson did not perform it on that occasion, then Joy’s last performance appears to have been even longer ago, in 1958.)
At any rate, one week from today, in Austin, Texas, GRAMMY-winning conductor Craig Hella Johnson and GRAMMY-winning choir Conspirare will bring Joy (in its arrangement for SATB and piano) to modern audiences’ ears – which means that the silencing imposed on this youthful, and (for Margaret Bonds) enduring musical envoicing of Hughes’s parable-poem will finally, after sixty-five years, come to an end. The work will be published by Hildegard Publishing Company as part of the Margaret Bonds Signature Series later this year.
A word about Bonds’s music before I deliver the promised gratuitous photo: it is notable partly for its characteristically Bondsian tunefulness, but also for its technique of modal diatonic saturation: the whole is built on the hexachord F – G – A – C – D – E, outlined in the opening choral proclamation “I went to look for Joy” and voiced throughout as an F9 chord with added sixth:
Beyond that, Bonds’s music is remarkable – a joy, really – for its perceptiveness in responding to Hughes’s poem: the speaker is of course the same as in the poem, but that voice comes to the fore only twice, when the poet expresses surprise and dismay at finding the object of desire in the arms of “such company.” Otherwise, the character of Bonds’s setting is dominated by the qualities of Joy/joy herself: dancing, gay, and bright-eyed. The final bars abandon themselves altogether to those attributes – a message that Hughes would have approved of wholeheartedly. For joy, Margaret Bonds shows us, is not the province of rarefied, elite company – not at all. Rather, joy is all around, and overpowering if only we, like the title character herself, give ourselves to its embrace.
It’s a remarkable, sparkling, joyous piece. And maybe, just maybe, its time has finally come – eighty-seven years after Bonds first wrote it, eighty-seven years after two publishers rejected it.
Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare will give the posthumous premiere performances of Margaret Bonds’s Joy on March 31 and April 1, 2023, as part of their program The Muse Speaks: The House of Belonging in St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, Austin. Tickets are available here.
Oh, and I promised a gratuitous photo! Here it is: Margaret Bonds’s class photo from her senior yearbook at Chicago’s Parker High School (1929). I’ve never seen this photo before, but I adore it because in it we not only see the brilliance and intensity that were the sine qua non of her creativity to the end of her days, but also, I think, catch a glimpse of the joy that caught her attention in Hughes’s poem and was given such wonderful voice in Joy:
I'm looking forward to this entire concert. I'll hope to see you there!