William L. Dawson (composer)

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William Levi Dawson (September 26, 1899 – May 2, 1990) was an African-American composer, choir director and professor.


Dawson was born in Anniston, Alabama. A graduate of the Horner Institute of Fine Arts with a Bachelor of Music, William Dawson later studied at the Chicago Musical College with professor Felix Borowski, and then at the American Conservatory of Music where he received his master's degree. Early in his career he served as a trombonist both with the Redpath Chautauqua and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago (1927–1930). His teaching career began in the Kansas City public school system, which was later followed by a tenure with the Tuskegee Institute from 1931–1956. During this period, it was he who appointed a large number of faculty members that later became well known for their work in the field. Additionally, Dawson also developed the Tuskegee Institute Choir into an internationally renowned ensemble; they were invited to sing at New York City's Radio City Music Hall in 1932 for a week of six daily performances.

As a composer, Dawson began at a young age, and it was early on in his compositional career that his Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano was performed by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra. Besides chamber music, he is also known for his contributions to both orchestral and choral literature. His best known works are arrangements and variations on spirituals; his Negro Folk Symphony of 1934 garnered a great deal of attention at its world premiere, held by Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The symphony was later revised in 1952 with greater African rhythms inspired by the composer's trip to West Africa. Dawson said that the composition was an attempt to convey the missing elements that were lost when Africans came into bondage outside their homeland. His most popular spirituals include "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel", "Jesus Walked the Lonesome Valley", "Talk about a Child That Do Love Jesus" and "King Jesus Is a-Listening". Dawson was elected to the Alpha Alpha Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the music fraternity in 1977. He died, aged 90, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Dawson's arrangements of traditional African-American spirituals are widely published in the United States and are regularly performed by school, college and community choral programs.


Notable works[edit]

  • Negro Folk Symphony (1934)
I. The Bond of Africa
II. Hope in the Night
III. O Let Me Shine!
  • Jesus Walked the Lonesome Valley
  • Talk about a Child That Do Love Jesus
  • King Jesus Is a-Listening.
  • Soon Ah Will Be Done-a wid de Troubles of the World
  • "Mary Had a Baby" (Christmas spiritual, dedicated to Robert Shaw)
  • "Every Time I Feel the Spirit"
  • "Aint' Got Time to Die"

External links[edit]