I found the music of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds about 15 years ago, back in the days when I’d just started to question the sameness of the white, male faces that filled the pages of my music history books, and to search in margins and footnotes for faces that looked more like mine.
I found a small-press anthology called Piano Music by Black Women Composers, a collection of music valiantly researched and retrieved from footnotes, from dusty attics and archives. And in that book I found two pieces of music that changed my life: Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre and Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Water.
Back then, I only knew the bare outlines of who these women were and what they’d accomplished in their time. I’d learn their stories later, and be astounded by the bold lives they’d led. But back then, it was just the music that shook me in a startling way. It echoed deep inside, stirred up some unconscious memory. It’s music that is sweet and rich, and strong with grit, dark with history. Music that can’t exist without the contradictions of race and privilege that define American history and American life.
Price and Bonds took their inspiration from music that goes way back, way deep into our American roots. They turned to Spirituals, the work songs, prayers and laments of their ancestors. They mixed those melodies together with the harmonies and forms they’d studied in the conservatories they’d fought so hard to attend, music that had traveled here from Europe on very different ships. They made a new musical hybrid, the way we do here in America. Marian Anderson sang Florence Price’s arrangements of Spirituals from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. This is our history.
This is music that pulls at so many parts of me, pulls them together. The part that is a strong woman, an audacious artist. The part that’s a brown girl. The part that is my father’s daughter with DNA back in St. Philip’s Church in Harlem, the historic Black Episcopal church where my dad grew up, singing in the same choir as Harry T. Burleigh half a century before him. St Philip’s, where Burleigh sang for Antonin Dvorak and the Spirituals he sang turned up in Dvorak’s New World Symphony, back in 1893 when Florence Price was still just a very little girl, down South in Arkansas. This is my history.
The title song of this project is the Spiritual Some of These Days. Florence Price arranged it in the 1940s. It’s a song that turned up again in the ‘60s as a Civil Rights protest song. And here it is again, in our time, still with a long road ahead until we get to the place where “all god’s children gonna sit together, some of these days.”
Some Of These Days - Fantasies Negres - Spiritual Suite - Go Down Moses - Troubled In My Mind - My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord - Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen - Swing Low Sweet Chariot - Hold On - Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler - My Little Soul's Goin' To Shine - Troubled Water