A Little-Known Gospel Song by Langston Hughes and Margaret Bonds -- A Song For Now
THE DOVE: it’s a potent and beautiful symbol for deeply troubled times.
Doves possess great symbolic import in many cultures. The fact that they produce their own milk for their young makes them symbols of nourishment, care, and parental love. They also symbolize tender, physical, sexual love. And in the Christian tradition – the religious tradition to which Langston Hughes and Margaret Bonds subscribed – the dove symbolizes not only peace, but also messages of peace and salvation that are delivered from on high: it was a dove bearing an olive branch that told Noah that the Great Flood was over; it was a dove that descended to Jesus when he was baptized.
In a previous post I talked about a brilliant new series of music videos produced by an international team featuring bass-baritone Justin Hopkins and pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers. The title of this series is Songs of Comfort (#SongsofComfort). The series will grow over the coming weeks, including ten songs and five solo-piano pieces by Florence B. Price (1887-1953) and Margaret Bonds (1913-72), two of the greatest African American composers of the twentieth century. (Here’s the YouTube playlist. You should bookmark it.)
It’s an apt title, and today a new installment dropped, descending to our troubled times like a dove from on high. Today’s featured work is the first-ever recording of Margaret Bonds’s setting of a little known gospel song by Langston Hughes titled “When the Dove Enters In.” Check out the lyrics:
Have you ever seen a mother seek her erring son
And find him deep in sin, doing what he should not’ve done?
Then she falls down on her knees and prays he’ll be made whole,
And the dove enters into his soul.
[REFRAIN:] Oh, when the dove enters in and the light is revealed,
Your sins are forgiven and your sorrows are healed,
On the pathway to glory new wonders begin
With prayer as the healer
when the dove enters in.
Have you ever seen a father seek his wandering girl
And find her deep in sin, a prisoner of this world?
Then he falls down on his knees and prays she’ll be made whole,
And the dove enters into her soul.
[REFRAIN:] Oh, when the dove enters in and the light is revealed, . . .
Do you have a sinful brother lost outside the fold,
Wasting all his talents in a world so bleak and cold?
Then just fall down on your knees and pray he’ll be made whole;
Ask the dove to come into his soul.
[REFRAIN:] Oh, when the dove enters in and the light is revealed . . .
That text, typically for Hughes, is richly textured, capturing all the dovely symbolism mentioned above and adding the theme of prayer.
But it’s also appropriate for Bonds’s and Hughes’s time – and for ours. Those two great creative minds met vicariously in the early 1930s, when Bonds encountered Hughes's The Negro Speaks of Rivers in an episode of The Crisis in the basement of the library at Northwestern University (because Blacks had to study in the basement). In each other they found creative nourishment and that special sort of love that is born of friendship, collaborating on a range of important creative projects from 1936 until Hughes’s death in 1967 – some thirty-five years of friendship and the joy and peace that come, for artists, with the process of creation. In a world that was, much like our own, dominated by Black Codes and widespread belief in White sectors that Black creativity was at best limited and inferior, the intimately collaborative friendship between Bonds and Hughes brought them a peace that was – then as now – in short supply.
So bring some of that with you when you listen to Margaret Bonds’s setting of this poem by Hughes. Yes, it is beautiful (very much so!); and yes, Justin’s and Jeanne-Minette’ reading is stunning (ditto). But for the same reasons that this hitherto unknown song, soon to be published in my edition by Hildegard Publishing Company, was a song for its own time, and for Bonds and Hughes individually, it is also a song for our time and for us: