Margaret Bonds: Minstrel Man

Written by Justin Austin


In category: Song of the Day

Published September 12, 2017

Right after I left Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer, I went to West Palm Beach Florida. I was competing in the national rounds of a year long competition presented by NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) NANM is the oldest organization for the preservation of African American Music. Each year, there is a different instrument that is the focus of the competition. Knowing that it was the year for “voice” my teacher helped me put together a solid program. The singers were required to present an Aria, Lied, African American Art Song, and a Spiritual. Surprisingly, I had never even heard of an African American Art Song. I began to research and came across a composer by the name of Margaret Bonds. I instantly fell in love with her music and message. She had a very strong friendship with Langston Hughes and often would set his poems to music. I knew that whatever piece I chose, it would have to be a Langston Hughes setting by Bonds. My voice teacher sent me a song called “Minstrel Man” from her cycle “Three Dream Portraits” and that was it! I felt that the music was heartbreakingly beautiful and the poetry deepened my love for Hughes.

I competed with “Minstrel Man” amongst the other requirements, and ended up winning first place. Winning was something I was proud of, but I was more excited about my new relationship with this extraordinary piece of music and poetry. I went on to sing this piece in recital at the Heidelberger Früling Festival, Manhattan School of Music, and will sing it at Carnegie Hall during my recital debut on October 9 at 8pm.

It speaks to me because it describes the struggle of a person having to basically grin and bear the atrocities facing them. I resonate with the text in two different ways. I interpret it as a black man in America having to experience racism every day and not feeling able to do anything about it other than smile and try to forget. I also interpret it as a professional singer who, no matter what awfulness I go through in my day, has to stand in front of hundreds sometimes thousands of people and pretend like there’s nothing wrong. It’s a powerful piece and I’m sure it will touch you in some way. Take a listen.

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Praised in Opera News as “a gentle actor and elegant musician”, baritone Justin Austin joined Heidelberger Frühling in 2017 as a Lied Scholar Artist in Lied Akademie with Artistic Director Thomas Hampson and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis as a Richard Gaddes Festival Artist. In July 2016, Justin was honored by the National Association of Negro Musicians and named the National Winner of their prestigious Vocal Performance Scholarship. Justin is a NYFOS Emerging Artist program alum and this fall will make his Carnegie Hall recital debut and perform on the Mainstage with NYFOS in Take Care of This House.

Selected posts in the Song of the Day category


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