One of my favorite things about songs—and of music and art in general—is how their meanings can change and evolve with us as we live. I am constantly amazed at how art and life can imitate one another. Today, I am pondering how we are like the fairytale all-stars in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods… or perhaps how they are like us. We have our own stories to tell, places to be, and things to do. Most of us would go to great lengths to protect ourselves and those closest to us. Would we go as far as to lie, steal, or slay a giant? Maybe, maybe not, but if we are honest with ourselves, we can at least confess our tendency of being self-centered and tunnel-visioned. I have been inspired to ask myself how my pursuit of “happily ever after” fits in with the stories of others, and if my success and well-being could ever be at someone else’s expense, even indirectly. Balancing our personal interests with the greater good is a daunting task, but this is the challenge we are offered.
“No one is alone.” These were the final words that Sarah, Bridget, Dave, and I sang together at our last public performance before the effects of the pandemic brought Chicago to a standstill. The past five months have added depth and clarity to what we can see in the art/life mirror, along with some extra time to gaze into it. Fear, uncertainty, unemployment, sickness, and death have plagued our country and world. We have had to endure the challenges of social distance—not just the six feet rule, but the everyday human encounters and interactions that we take for granted. Masks shield our smiles and muffle our words. Visits with family and friends are minimal or nonexistent. Live music and theater is postponed indefinitely. I cannot imagine a better example than the quarantines and stay-at-home orders to illustrate this paradox: everyone is alone but no one is alone. In this tragic and bizarre moment in history, there is a suffering that we all share and understand.
Perhaps this more widespread understanding will help us as we engage in the conversation that has returned to the forefront regarding systemic racism. The idea of being a benefactor of such unbalanced and violent systems is sobering. As a non-Black person of color, I find myself in an interesting position in that I can be (and have been) on the sides of both oppressor and oppressed, depending on the context. I continue to grapple with this and discern how to be a better ally to those in most need. Meanwhile, the global community faces this and other issues such as sexism, abuse, trafficking, xenophobia, warfare, terrorism, poverty, pollution, climate change, and the list goes on and on. It is overwhelming, and easy to become cynical. Where do we begin?
“Mother isn’t here now, who knows what she’d say? Nothing’s quite so clear now, feel you’ve lost your way?”
We won’t always have someone to hold our hand and guide our steps in tough situations. Eventually, we should be able to do a respectable job of navigating through the darkness of these woods, but this requires some prep work. That work involves listening, learning, and deep thought; GPS will not help you understand the lay of this land. Vulnerability, humility, patience, and open-mindedness will help steer us on a path toward solidarity and shared prosperity. So, we must dare to move forward, make tough choices, and take responsibility for our actions, conscious and accepting of the fact that that we will inevitably make some missteps along the way.
Let our performance of this song be an invitation to you to pause. Call to mind the giants and witches in your lives that cause you anxiety, frustration, and even anger. Also consider that you might be perceived as the villain in someone else’s fairytale. Deciding what is right and good is not as easy as it may seem, but we can start by acknowledging how complex and interconnected our lives are. Truly, no one is alone. This is not only a message of comfort, but also a call to action. Our world is in dire need of reconciliation and harmony, and it begins with us.
With the many thunderstorms we’ve been experiencing in Chicago this summer, one song has been on regular rotation in my mental playlist: Margaret Bonds’ Summer Storm, from her Songs of the Season cycle with texts by Langston Hughes.
A Chicago native, Margaret Bonds was born in 1913 into a musical family. Her mother, organist Estelle C. Bonds, was her first music teacher, and a close family friendship with Florence Price led to piano and composition lessons with the brilliant composer while Bonds was still in high school. In fact, Bonds went on to perform Price’s piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. She later moved to New York, where she studied at Juilliard Graduate School and dedicated much of her career to supporting and advancing Black musicians and composers.
Simply put, we should know Margaret Bonds and her astonishing work much more than most of us do.
It was both exciting and challenging to dig into this particular song: Bonds embraces a broad palette of musical styles and colors in her work, and this song showcases that. From a blues-like anticipation of “July thunder” at the start, the music whirls into quick and angular “lightning in the sky, and a sudden gale that shakes the blossoms down.” The piano part then illustrates petals falling down like “confetti in your hair, confetti on the ground” as the vocal line gets swept into the love story unfolding in the “soft, sweet rain.”
The real thunder turns out to be a pounding heartbeat of being “hand in hand”, happy through the storm, with one’s love. Bonds creates a soaring ending that hearkens back to the start, exulting through Hughes’ words: “July thunder, in my heart, the wonder of love [...] The wonder of being in love with you.”
A fitting sentiment for today, in particular, as we celebrate Bridget’s July wedding this morning. Congratulations, Bridget - love to you and Elliot, and wishing you fairer weather than the thunderstorm in this song!
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!