Skip to page content


Composed: 1941

About this Piece

Composer Margaret Bonds first met Langston Hughes in 1936, and the two developed a lifelong friendship and collaborative relationship that saw Bonds set much of Hughes’ poetry to music. Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” aged just 17, composing it on the back of an envelope while crossing the Mississippi River during a journey with his father that would eventually take him to Mexico. The poem considers the contemporary African American experience alongside the ancient, shared memories of African peoples, tracing their connection to rivers on both continents. In 1921, Hughes submitted the poem to The Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, which was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Upon reading the poem, Du Bois recalled asking, “What colored person is there, do you suppose, in the United States who writes like that and yet is unknown to us?”

Characteristic of her approach to art songs, Bonds evokes the meaning of her text in both the melody and the accompaniment, often playing one off the other. Word painting sees the vocalist steadily, even laboriously, ascend to the line “raised the pyramids above it,” and the melody and the churning accompaniment slow to a complete halt with the phrase “lulled me to sleep.” The accompaniment offers character variations on the churning ostinato that runs throughout the song: shifting from major to minor tonalities based on the nature of the memory, offering a low dissonant chord, evoking an antebellum cakewalk at the mention of Lincoln, all before returning to the original contemplative, world-weary theme that opened the song.


“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

by Langston Hughes (1921)

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.