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Songs to believe in: A Juneteenth playlist

This Juneteenth, pianist Lara Downes remembers the freedom that has been hard fought and hard won.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Composer Margaret Bonds was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps her most inspiring large-scale work was something she didn't live long enough to hear professionally performed. Pianist Lara Downes showcases the work of overlooked and underappreciated Black composers, and she picks up the story from here.

LARA DOWNES: In 1964, Bonds starts working on a massive piece for baritone, chorus and orchestra set to the text of the "Credo" by W.E.B. Du Bois. It's fascinating because, you know, he wrote these words in 1904, and she's, six years later, at the height of the civil rights movement, reaching back to this seminal text that's about equality, liberty and sort of the American promise. He's imagining this world that totally defies the realities of his America, which is Jim Crow America. And here's a quote that I love - "I believe in liberty for all men, the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote."

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSPIRARE PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO")

CONSPIRARE: (Singing) And the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends.

DOWNES: That's a recording that was made by the Conspirare choral ensemble. The world premiere of this piece took place in 1972, just a few months after Margaret Bonds died. And then the piece was never published, so it has sort of languished for half a century until it's finally been published just recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSPIRARE PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO")

CONSPIRARE: (Singing) I believe in liberty.

DOWNES: So now, 50 years after the fact, I've recorded her first sketch of the piece before she orchestrated it for giant forces. This is just for solo piano. This is actually the section of the piece that talks about Du Bois' belief in the Negro race, in his words.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO: NO. 2, I BELIEVE")

DOWNES: I find this music to be, at the same time, incredibly intimate and sort of infinitely powerful. The melody that she chose, it just has this soaring nature to it, and it just makes me think about this quest for freedom, this dream for freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO: NO. 2, I BELIEVE")

DOWNES: If you read the Du Bois texts now - of course, the language is from 1904. It's dated. And, you know, there are some ideas that are very much of his time. And also, these ideas are timeless. And I wanted to reach to the next generation with this music, and so I'm putting out a call to young people across the United States just to say what they believe in and to come together in creating a credo for our time, a vision for our future. We started reaching out to kids all around the country, and we've already received some beautiful submissions.

CHANDELA CONTRERAS: I believe that no one is perfect, that everyone makes mistakes.

BRENTON YOUNG: I believe in a world of loving people, people like your friends.

ALISSA HURTADO: I believe in progression, the marching drum of your percussion solo that beats to the reach, reach (ph) anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO: NO. 2, I BELIEVE")

DOWNES: Those were the voices of Chandela Contreras (ph), Brenton Young (ph) and Alissa Hurtado (ph). I think this Juneteenth, it's worth remembering that freedom has always been hard fought and that the greatest freedom we have is to believe in tomorrow and to work to make it better, sometimes despite all the evidence and against all the odds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO: NO. 2, I BELIEVE")

MARTIN: If you know a young person who'd like to contribute to Lara's project, visit her website at laradownes.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES PERFORMANCE OF MARGARET BONDS' "CREDO: NO. 2, I BELIEVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.