“I Got a Home in dat Rock” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”

by Max Derrickson

Margaret Bonds (Arranger):

“I Got a Home in dat Rock” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”

Those beautiful and emotionally-charged Spirituals that today are considered something between folksong and worship songs were created by “Negro” slaves of the American South.  They captured the slaves’ devotion to Jesus, their Savior, and they often described, in veiled terms, their agonies and hopes for a new life – not only in Heaven but for freedom now.  Some songs are strongly believed to have had double meanings as incitement to slaves to run away or infused with coded messages.  It’s no wonder that these extraordinary songs often send chills through our spines, so wrought are they with desperation, urgency and hope… and beauty  Frederick Douglas wrote: “Every tone [of a Spiritual for me] was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”  Nothing in music can really compare to a masterfully sung Spiritual.

Spirituals were invented by Southern slaves on American soil.  To be sure, they incorporate some musical elements brought over with them from Africa, but by and large, Spirituals were truly the first American music, and Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was one of the first musicians to recognize these great songs, along with the indigenous music of the America’s First Peoples (American Indians), as America’s bona fide “folk” music.

Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) was a virtuoso pianist and composer, and one of the very few Blacks to attend the Chicago University and the Julliard School… not to mention achieve post-graduate degrees in music.  She was a gifted Classical composer, but also cherished the value of Spirituals as important musical expressions.  She also had an uncanny talent for arranging, and thereby arranged a fair number of the great spirituals for voice and Orchestra to bring this powerful genre to even wider audiences: her versions of “I Got a Home in dat Rock” and the (now) wildly popular “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” have become standard fare, in fact, iconic American songs, since their publications.