Margaret Bonds received great acclaim during her lifetime as a composer, pianist, and teacher. She was the first black soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, an event that has been chronicled as one of the historic moments of black pride in American history. Ironically, she seems to have been denied the credit for her most famous work of arranging and songwriting, the gospel hymn "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." This song is known around the world, has been performed countless times, and is considered by most listeners to be "just" a traditional song. Not so. The arrangement of the song that is commonly performed is an arrangement that is lock, stock, and Bonds'. She also wrote for choir, orchestra, and piano as well as songs in both the popular and art genres. She was at the heart of the great developments in black classical music through three decades beginning in the '20s, that term meant to encompass jazz as well as gospel and classical music. She might not have kept "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" in her hands, but most of her catalog of compositions is easy to acquire in published forms. Her most famous cycle of art songs is the "Three Dream Portraits, based on the poetry by Langston Hughes and first published in 1959.
Bonds began her musical studies with her mother, Estella C. Bonds. She continued to study piano with Florence B. Price and composition with William Dawson, completing both a bachelor's and master's degree at Northwestern University at 21 years old. She then went on to the Juilliard School, where she studied with Tobert Storer, Henry Levine, Roy Harris, and Emerson Harper. In the second half of the '30s, she was working at full throttle in music, involved in both "serious" and non-serious genres. She received a prestigious scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1939 and co-wrote the snappy "Peach Tree Street" tune the following year. The latter song, based on a popular Atlanta thoroughfare, was recorded by Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, among others.
She was both a respected performing pianist and teacher in Chicago and New York through the mid-'60s, her students including the composer Ned Rorem, among many others. In 1967, she relocated to Los Angeles, where she began working on film music and with the Inner City Institute and Repertory Theater. Hughes was her greatest collaborator. The two worked on a series of songs and musical theater works including the musical Shakespeare in Harlem and the cantata "Ballad of the Brown King." She received the Northwestern University alumni medal in 1967. Her "Credo" for baritone, chorus, and orchestra was performed by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta shortly after her death in 1972.