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  • John Michael Cooper


Updated: Jan 21, 2022

A New Reflection on an Unpublished Gospel Song by Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes

“We haven’t any Negro books at all”: this is what the head librarian of Yale University, Bernhard Knollenberg (1892-1973), told Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), an artist, writer, and leading patron of the Harlem Renaissance, when he learned that Van Vechten was pondering “the question of what would be [the] ultimate disposal of [his] collection of Negro books, manuscripts, letters, photographs, phonograph records, and music.”[1] As a result of that pointed observation the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection was founded in 1941. It has grown continuously since then and now contains more than 13,000 volumes and hundreds of linear feet of manuscript material.

Among these materials are hundreds of documents pertaining to Langston Hughes (1901-1967), Margaret Bonds (1913-72), and the decades-long and immensely fruitful intersection of their two lives.

And among those materials is a gospel song titled “When the Dove Enters In.”

That song – a gem in miniature if ever there’s been one – lay unexamined, unperformed, unheard, and unpublished for decades.

In 2018, I happened up on it and edited as part of an ongoing project to help un-silence the hundreds of compositions by Bonds that have lain unpublished and unheard all these years because she was, y’know, a woman and, y’know, Black. In 2019 I shared it with Bonds champion Lara Downes and, a few months later, with South African pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers Richards.

And now, in the profoundly troubled year 2020, this marvelous Bonds/Hughes collaboration is breaking its silence – decades after its creation by Bonds and Hughes.

Jeanne-Minette recorded it with Philadelphia native Justin Hopkins as part of their #SongsofComfort series , and bass-baritone/composer/actor Damien Geter performed it in a wonderfully intimate recital for the Portland Opera’s Live from Hampton Opera Center series on December 2.

Hildegard Publishing Company published When the Dove Enters In as part of their Margaret Bonds Signature Series in 2021, and now there’s a new and compelling rendition – this time offered by bass-baritone Davóne Tines as part of this week’s episode of Lara Downes’s ever-inspiring NPR Music series AMPLIFY. In this episode, Lara and Davóne focus on the healing, curative, connective power of music generally and its potency, as Lara notes, in renewal. They focus on this song in particular as a case study in those qualities, discussing how music, in the age of COVID-19, where . . . “everyone is having to always answer the question why,” helps us to find what Davóne calls “the kaleidoscope of oneself”: “it’s really beautiful that the recurring chorus of this song is for the light to be revealed” (Davóne):

And this new rendering adds another dimension – for as we listen to the song, Davóne and Lara realize Hughes’s marvelously human verbal poetry and Bonds’s characteristically rich musical poetry, we watch Leila Annette-Celestin Victorin create the extraordinary image shown in the cover photo for this post. There is something surpassingly beautiful in watching the process of visual creation unfold in (accelerated) real time as two superb musicians realize Hughes’s and Bonds’s collaborative genius in tones – all in the context of a conversation about the connective, creative, and restorative capacities of art and interpretation.

The title of this week’s episode of AMPLIFY is “Redemption and Connection.” You’ll find it here, and you should watch it. It will be the most enriching 12’53” you’ve spent in a while. (When the Dove Enters In begins at 7'07".)

[1] Carl Van Vechten, “The J. W. Johnson Collection at Yale,” The Crisis 49, no. 7 (July, 1942): 222.

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