At 100, Composer Margaret Bonds Remains A Great Exception

Margaret Bonds, who died in 1972, is perhaps near the top of the very short list of African-American female composers. Thanks to her partnerships with Langston Hughes and soprano Leontyne Price and others, she's remembered in some circles as an important figure in American composition. But, mostly, she's been forgotten.

"It's amazing that people don't know who she was, although she was quite well known in her time," says Louise Toppin, an opera singer and a voice professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Toppin is hosting a symposium on Bonds this weekend, in honor of what would have been the composer's 100th birthday. Toppin spoke with NPR's Celeste Headlee about Bonds' impact on American culture as well as her own development as a musician.

Interview Highlights

On Bonds' Chicago upbringing

"She's born into the time where jazz musicians from the Great Migration have come to Chicago. You have classical musicians that are also there, so it's a very rich musical environment. The Chicago renaissance is going on, so you have writers, poets — everything is happening."

On "Troubled Water," Bonds' adaptation of a classic spiritual

"I actually learned it when I was about 10 years old, as a pianist. It was the first composition my piano teacher gave me. ... I was fascinated as a child to see a composition by an African-American, because I hadn't. As I started to learn the piece and the jazz influence, the extended techniques — you have to have a feel for jazz to play that piece, but you also get a good sense of what a fine pianist Margaret Bonds had to have been to play that."

On Bonds' lifelong collaboration with Langston Hughes

"They had a personal relationship, a friendship. They actually worked collaboratively for so long, and knew each other. And she loved the way he told the story of African-Americans and Harlem during this time, because one of the things that was important to Bonds was to promote not only her own compositions, but just the pride she had in African-American artists."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit


No Meekness Here: Meet Rosa Parks, 'Lifelong Freedom Fighter'

As the 60th anniversary of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott approaches, author Jeanne Theoharis says it's time to let go of the image of Rosa Parks as an unassuming accidental activist.

Internet Food Culture Gives Rise To New 'Eatymology'

Internet food culture has brought us new words for nearly every gastronomical condition. The author of "Eatymology," parodist Josh Friedland, discusses "brogurt" with NPR's Rachel Martin.
WAMU 88.5

World Leaders Meet For The UN Climate Change Summit In Paris

World leaders meet for the UN climate change summit in Paris to discuss plans for reducing carbon emissions. What's at stake for the talks, and prospects for a major agreement.


Payoffs For Prediction: Could Markets Help Identify Terrorism Risk?

In a terror prediction market, people would bet real money on the likelihood of attacks. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Stephen Carter about whether such a market could predict — and deter — attacks.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.