Arts Blog

Black History Month: William Levi Dawson

In our third installment for Black History Month, we turn to William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), a renowned African-American composer, choir director, and professor. Dawson wrote chamber music, orchestral music, and choral music, and is best known for his arrangements of African American spirituals. Through all the forms he worked with, Dawson consistently incorporated African American themes and melodies into his music. In both his work and teaching, Dawson stressed that while African American musical heritage was key to many developments in jazz and jazz-derived music, it didn’t need to be limited to just these popular forms.

Dawson’s life took a multifaceted and variegated path, but education always remained his primary dedication. Born in Anniston, Alabama, Dawson ran away from home at the age of 13 to attend the Tuskegee Institute. There, he sang in the choir, played trombone in the college band, and started composing at age 16. After graduating in 1921, Dawson went on to study composition at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, where he convinced the then all-white school to allow him to earn his BA through one-on-one tutoring sessions. Dawson later earned his master’s degree in composition from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Dawson began teaching in the Kansas City public school system, and in 1930 was invited back as a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, where he played an integral role in founding the music school. There, Dawson also developed the Tuskegee Institute Choir, which became an internationally acclaimed ensemble, performing tours around the U.S. after their initial invitation to sing at New York City’s Radio Music Hall in 1932.

I talked to Dr. Gwynne K. Brown, Associate Professor of Music History at the University of Puget Sound, who is carrying out research on Dawson. Dr. Brown, currently writing a book on Dawson’s life and works for the American Composers Series published by University of Illinois Press, commented that a major theme for thinking about Dawson is the centrality of education in his life. As Dr. Brown describes: “He ran away from home as a young teenager to attend Tuskegee Institute, and he left a promising career as a trombonist in Chicago to return to Tuskegee in 1930 and create a school of music there. He was a devoted teacher and mentor to many young black musicians. He knew that the rigorous training he could provide, along with helping them to develop their self-discipline and resilience and ambition, he could help make sure that their talents and potential wouldn’t go to waste in a society that was ready to undervalue and discourage them. After he resigned from Tuskegee in 1955 he spent more than three decades sharing his knowledge and musicianship with young musicians of all races all over the country.” 

Indeed, after Dawson retired from teaching at Tuskegee in 1956, he spent much of his time conducting choral festivals and leading workshops around the world. Dawson was deeply committed to his art and had high standards for the students he worked with. In Dawson’s rehearsal notes for members of the All-Eastern Division Chorus in the 1961 Music Educators National Convention, he writes: “There will be no time to teach notes, rhythms, or pronunciations. All rehearsal time will be needed for fine points of performance such as interpretation, style and polish. Start learning now!” As a conductor Dawson asked for precision and attention to detail from his choirs. What set Dawson apart from other teachers, however, was his dedication to educating his choirs on the historical legacy and the proper singing techniques of the genre of spirituals. We’ll explore Dawson’s spirituals here, but first, let’s explore one of Dawson’s most well-known pieces for orchestra: his Negro Folk Symphony.


Listening to Dawson: The Negro Folk Symphony


One of Dawson’s keystone works is his Negro Folk Symphony, a significant yet largely unacknowledged contribution to the development of the American symphony. The Negro Folk Symphony was premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting. It was Dawson’s aim to “to write a symphony in the Negro folk idiom, based on authentic folk music but in the same symphonic form used by the composers of the [European] romantic-nationalist school.” Inspired by Antonín Dvořák’s views towards nationalism in music, Dawson wanted his symphony to shed light on the African American voice, highlighting the music of his neighbors and ancestors alike in rural Alabama and the segregated South. Later in 1952, after a recent trip to West Africa, Dawson revised the piece to include more African rhythms, stating a desire to convey “the missing elements that were lost when Africans came into bondage outside their homeland.”

The Negro Folk Symphony sounds akin to late-Romantic orchestral music in terms of overall shape and instrumentation. However, as musicologist John Andrew Johnson describes, “Each of its three movements, while cast in a traditional form, is ultimately not controlled by these predetermined structures; rather, a continuous process of variation and development shapes its course.” Each movement has its own subtitle: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night” and ”O, le’ me shine, shine like a Morning Star!” Dawson weaves characteristic melodies from African American folk songs and spirituals throughout each movement. While the piece can be appreciated without previous familiarity with the melodies or underlying background, there are strong programmatic elements in the piece that tie in with the titles of the movements.



The first movement, for example, “The Bond of Africa,” contains two related main themes. The first theme is original material by Dawson and represents the “missing link” from “a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent into slavery.” The second theme, initially heard in the oboes, is based on the folk song ”Oh, m’ Lit’l’ Soul Gwine-A Shine.” Dawson incorporates some distinct techniques for programmatic effects in the second movement, as well. Tolling bells bring about an atmosphere of grief and lament, with a background of pizzicato strings representing the lives of slaves in bondage. Three gong strokes denote the Trinity, a symbol of hope guiding man through the night. In the third movement of the Negro Folk Symphony, Dawson takes on a lighter perspective. Here, he incorporates two African American melodies, “O Le’ Me Shine, Le’ Me Shine Lik’ A Mornin’ Star” and “Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea” to illustrate a scene of children playing, unmoored by the despair of their slave heritage.

The Negro Folk Symphony is one of Dawson’s seminal achievements as a composer, but it remains relatively unknown today. In asking Dr. Brown about aspects of Dawson’s career that often go underappreciated or unacknowledged, she expressed to me that “many of Dawson’s choral works are routinely performed by high school and college and church choirs, so his legacy in that regard is firmly established. I do wish that more people had a chance to hear his Negro Folk Symphony. It is an American masterpiece. In my view, it should be in heavy rotation in the repertoire alongside the symphonies of Florence Price and William Grant Still. Every other time an American orchestra is about to program a symphony by Dvorak, they should stop and choose Dawson’s instead, or one of Price’s or Still’s.” (Stay tuned for our next post, which will kick off Woman’s History Month by featuring the works of Florence Price as well as several other noteworthy women composers).

All Classical will be featuring Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony on the air this Sunday (2/25) at about 6:30pm, so be sure to tune in then!


Dawson’s Spirituals


As Dr. Brown mentioned above, Dawson’s arrangements of spirituals remain popular among choirs. Songs including “Ain’-a That Good News,” “King Jesus is a-Listening,” and “I’ve Been Buked,” are regularly performed and recorded by choirs around the world. Dawson’s love for African American folk music emerged from a young age, having heard them in church, local concerts, and at home. Dawson spent hours playing with folk melodies, creating idiomatic settings that make full use of the human voice and adding new rhythmic elements to them.

African American spirituals themselves originated in slave plantations, where singing was the only way slaves could express themselves musically. Slaves often sang at religious gatherings, which served for slaves as a conduit of free expression. It was the intention of white masters to use religion as a means of controlling slaves, with preachers brought into plantations to preach to slaves on the “evils” of running away or disobeying masters. However, religion became an important means for slaves to speak out against their oppression and for hopes of freedom. In both their religious gatherings and in work settings, slaves imbued their songs with code words that allowed them to communicate messages to each other without the masters’ knowledge. The word “home,” for example, was an expression of yearning to escape and live in a free land. A chariot or train represented the means of traveling home. (Songs such as “Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were references to the Underground Railroad). Crossing the Jordan River referred to crossing the Ohio River and into the North, where freedom could be found.

Dawson’s arrangements of traditional African American spirituals are classified as “concert” spirituals. The concert spiritual began with the 1871 tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who gave performances across the country to raise funds for the school. The primary material this group used for their concerts were formal settings of traditional slave melodies, but sung in a style associated with European art music. Unlike anonymous and improvisatory folk song spirituals, concert spirituals are crafted, written-down pieces intended to be performed by classically-trained voices. One might compare the African American spiritual to European counterparts such as the French chanson, the German lied, the English lute song, and the Italian madrigal. Spirituals are generally intended for non-religious concert performances rather than sacred use in church services, but they can have religious texts or deal with religious subjects.

During the time Dawson was emerging as a young composer, professional touring ensembles from historical black colleges were beginning to face struggles due to budget retractions from the Depression and changing music fashions in pre-World War II America. Dawson’s Tuskegee Choir, which he led from 1931-55, brought about a resurgence in popularity for spirituals. Dawson’s arrangements were unique in that they brought a more vigorous style of singing to spirituals. There is a sense of rhythmic momentum in arrangements like Ezekiel saw de wheelEv’ry Time I feel the spirit, and Ain’-a That Good News! that recall the tradition of slaves singing in a ring shout. Ring shouts, often performed by slaves after the conclusion of a regular worship service, was an expression of their African roots. Men and women arranged themselves in a ring, dancing in a circle at a faster and faster pace until individuals reached an ecstatic state and dropped out in exhaustion. In Dawson’s arrangements, the rhythmic energy accumulates in a similar way, with richly voiced extended harmonies closing out each phrase in ecstatic jubilance.

Spirituals, including Dawson’s are typically performed with a distinctively Southern diction. Early composers of spirituals would often write the lyrics in the actual regional dialect. For example, ending consonants are softened, and final “r” consonants are modified to “h” (“over,” for instance, becomes “ovah”). This may have looked disrespectful to a performer in the post-Civil Rights era. Ultimately, however, composers incorporated this diction in their settings with intent of preserving and celebrating the unique quality of speech of a unique group of people in unique place and time. Commenting on a paper she wrote entitled “The Serious Spirituals of William L. Dawson,” Dr. Brown described to me how Dawson “crafted his choral spirituals with incredible care to make sure that they wouldn’t be performed or interpreted as humorous. Thanks to the legacy of blackface minstrelsy, there was a tendency in the early 20th century for white audiences to perceive all black music-making as comical. It’s fascinating to see Dawson’s strategic defusing of that danger through the way he handled spirituals in his compositions. He really valued the religious folk song heritage of his enslaved ancestors, and he cared both that they be taken seriously by white audiences, and that they not be abandoned by African American musicians who felt the songs were too demeaned to be worth saving.”

”I have never doubted the possibilities of our music,” Dawson once told an interviewer. Dawson’s works bridged the gap between listeners, having been known and loved by black and white audiences alike. If you are eager to jump into Dawson’s sound world, listed below are some suggested recordings of his orchestral and choral works:

Still: Symphony No. 2, Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony / Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Contains Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony

Steal Away: The African American Concert Spiritual / Seraphic Fire, Patrick Dupré Quigley, Piano and Conductor
Contains Dawson’s arrangements Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit and There is a Balm in Gilead


The Glory of the Father / Washington County Chorale, Bernd R. Kuehn, Conductor
Contains Dawson’s Ain’-A That Good News



  1. Brown, Gwynne K. Personal Interview. 17 Feb 2018.
  2. Emory University, “A Life’s Journey,” William Levi Dawson: The Collection at Emory, 18 Jan 2008. Web. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
  3. Huff, Vernon Edward. “William Levi Dawson: An Examination of Selected Letters, Speeches, and Writings.” Arizona State University, Doctoral dissertation. May 2013. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.
  4. Lloyd, Thomas. “A History of the African-American Spiritual: Dawson and the Emergence of Large Mized Choirs in the Historical Black Colleges.” Bucks County Choral Society. Aug 2004. Web. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
  5. Pratt, Micheal. “The African-American Spiritual and its African Roots” Music for the Soul. 3 Sept 2009. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
  6.  Quigley, Patrick Dupré. Steal Away: The African American Concert Spiritual / Seraphic Fire, Patrick Dupré Quigley, Piano and Conductor. CD liner notes.
  7. “William Levi Dawson, African American Composer & Professor.” 1 Jan 2016. Web. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
  8. “William L. Dawson, Composer, 90.” The New York Times. 4 May 1990. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2018.

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