William Levi Dawson

After running away from home as a teenager to study music at Tuskegee University, William Dawson established an esteemed career as a composer, music educator, and conductor. His work includes transcriptions of traditional African American Spirituals, chamber repertoire, choral music, and orchestral works. His famous Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934.

Photo via: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dawson-william-levi-1898-1990/

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    William Levi Dawson was born in Anniston, Alabama on September 26, 1899. At thirteen years old, Dawson ran away from home to enroll at the Tuskegee Institute, a historically all-Black institution of higher learning in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he studied the trombone, performed in the school band and choir, and discovered his affinity for composition. Upon graduating from Tuskegee in 1921, Dawson moved to Topeka, Kansas to direct the music program at the Topeka Vocational College. He was also actively performing as a tenor and trombonist during this time. After a year in Topeka, Dawson enrolled in the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City to pursue his BA in music theory. The Horner Institute, an all-white institution at the time, allowed him to earn his degree via one-on-one private tutoring sessions. He received his degree in 1925, but was not allowed onstage to receive his diploma at the graduation ceremony due to his race. 

    Dawson prioritized his education and the education of other young Black musicians throughout his career as a conductor, composer, and performer. After completing his undergraduate studies, he immediately sought opportunities in music education. Dawson taught as a band director at Lincoln High School in Kansas City until 1926. He then went on to pursue his master’s at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where he also performed as the first trombonist and only Black member in Chicago’s prestigious Civic Orchestra. 

    In 1930, Dawson was invited back to the Tuskegee Institute as a professor and director of the music department. Under his leadership, the School of Music at Tuskegee blossomed. He conducted the 100-voice Tuskegee Choir for 25 years, leading the choir to international fame after they performed at the opening of New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1932. Dawson also led the choir’s performances for Presidents Hoover and FDR. After his retirement from Tuskegee in 1956, Dawson continued to serve as a mentor for musicians of all races for over 30 years.

    William Dawson also played an integral role in the mission to bring Spirituals to contexts that historically excluded Black musical traditions. His works for choir are frequently performed worldwide and include brilliant reimaginings of over twenty-fiveSpirituals, such as “I’ve Been Buked,” “Ain’-a That Good News,” “Deep River,” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” Dawson also composed for instrumental chamber ensembles, including a piano trio and a violin sonata. Perhaps his most well-known work, the Negro Folk Symphony, was written as he was touring nationally with the Tuskegee choir. The famed English conductor Leopold Stokowski advised Dawson on the piece during its progress and eventually led the Philadelphia Orchestra in its highly successful premiere in 1934. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony exhibits many of the same musical conventions as European romantic composers, but is primarily written in the African American folk idiom with traditional rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. Following a trip to West Africa in 1952, Dawson revised the symphony to include more African rhythms, creating the version that is most often performed today.

    William Dawson was recognized for his trailblazing efforts in the education of young Black musicians and his compositional brilliance throughout his career. Among many other honors, Dawson received honorary doctorates in music from the Tuskegee Institute in 1956 and Ithaca College in 1922. In 1989, he was also awarded an honorary doctorate in law from Lincoln University. He received multiple Wanamaker Contest prizes for his vocal and instrumental works, and was honored by the American Choral Directors Association for his “pioneering leadership, inspiration, and service to the choral art” in 1975.

    Dawson left a legacy of advocacy for Black music and played an integral role in the inclusion of Black music in western classical settings through his compositions and efforts as a conductor. He inspired and facilitated the education of many young Black musicians. William Levi Dawson died in May of 1990 in Montgomery, Alabama. 

    -Helen Bryant

    This profile was created in 2022 as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.


    -Reich, Megan, and Megan Reich. 2022. “Black History Month: William Levi Dawson | All Classical Portland”. All Classical Portland. https://www.allclassical.org/black-history-month-william-levi-dawson/

    -“William Dawson, Composer, And Vocalist Born”. 2022. African American Registry. https://aaregistry.org/story/william-dawson-international-composer-and-conductor-of-renown/

    -“William Levi Dawson, African American Composer & Choral Director”. 2022. Chevalierdesaintgeorges.Homestead.Com. http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/Dawson.html

    Related Information



    An Anthology of African and African Diaspora Songs

    (H. Leslie Adams, David N. Baker, Margaret Bonds, Charles Samuel Brown, Henry T. Burleigh, Valerie Capers, Harriette Davison Watkins, Adolphus C. Hailstork, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Undine Smith Moore, Camille Nickerson, Robert Owens, Zenobia Powell Perry, Florence Price, Rosephanye Powell, Dave Ragland, Hale Smith, Irene Britton Smith and Brandon J Spencer)


    View recording

    Barbara Hendricks- Negro Spirituals

    (William Levi Dawson)


    Sheet Music

    An Anthology of African and African Diaspora Songs - 60 Songs

    Composer(s): H. Leslie Adams, David N. Baker, Margaret Bonds, Charles Brown, H. T. Burleigh, Valerie Capers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Arthur Cunningham, Harriette Davison Watkins, William Dawson, Mark Fax, Bruce Forsythe, Antônio Carlos Gomes, Adolphus Hailstork, Jacqueline Hairston, Maud Cuney Hare, Jeraldine Herbison, Jonathan Holland, Sylvia Hollifield, Langston Hughes, J. Rosamond Johnson, Thomas Kerr, Lena McLin, Undine Smith Moore, Andre Myers, Camille Nickerson, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Eurydice Osterman, Robert Owens, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Zenobia Powell Perry, Rosephanye Powell, Florence Price, Dave Ragland, Nadine Shanti, Carlos Simon, Hale Smith, Irene Britton Smith, Brandon Spencer, Hilbert Stewart, Howard Swanson, George Walker, Aurelia Young

    Song(s): Amazing Grace (H. Leslie Adams)
    Christmas Lullaby (H. Leslie Adams)
    Sence You Went Away (H. Leslie Adams)
    The Heart of a Woman (H. Leslie Adams)
    The Alarm Clock (David N. Baker)
    The Negro Speaks of Rivers (Margaret Bonds)
    Caring (Charles Brown)
    Desire (Charles Brown)
    Your Eyes So Deep (H. T. Burleigh)
    Your Lips Are Wine (H. T. Burleigh)
    Autumn (Valerie Capers)
    Elëanore (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)
    The Willow Song (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)
    Minakesh (Arthur Cunningham)
    Stars (Harriette Davison Watkins)
    Out in the Fields (William Dawson)
    The Refused (Mark Fax)
    With Rue My Heart Is Laden (Bruce Forsythe)
    Suspiro d’alma (Antônio Carlos Gomes)
    If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Longing (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Loveliest of Trees (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Dormi, Jesu (Jacqueline Hairston)
    Gardé Piti Mulet Là (Maud Cuney Hare)
    I’ll Not Forget (Jeraldine Herbison)
    Little Elegy (Jonathan Holland)
    In Time of Silver Rain (Sylvia Hollifield)
    The Founding Fathers (Langston Hughes)
    This is My Land (Langston Hughes)
    L’il Gal (J. Rosamond Johnson)
    Soliloquy (Thomas Kerr)
    Amazing Grace (Lena McLin)
    The Year’s at the Spring (Lena McLin)
    I Am in Doubt (Undine Smith Moore)
    I Want to Die While You Love Me (Undine Smith Moore)
    For a Poet (Andre Myers)
    Chere, Mo Lemmé Toi (Camille Nickerson)
    Gué, Gué, Solingaie (Camille Nickerson)
    Mshila (Fred Onovwerosuoke)
    Entreaty (I Am the Rose of Sharon) (Eurydice Osterman)
    Could I but Ride Indefinite (Robert Owens)
    Die Nacht (Robert Owens)
    From the Dark Tower (Robert Owens)
    The Lynching (Robert Owens)
    The Secret (Robert Owens)
    Madrigal (Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson)
    O Children of Men (Zenobia Powell Perry)
    I Want to Die While You Love Me (Rosephanye Powell)
    Spring (Florence Price)
    The Sum (Florence Price)
    Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dave Ragland)
    Mangez, Boulez (Eat, Drink, Be Merry) (Nadine Shanti)
    Prayer (Carlos Simon)
    Troubled Woman (Hale Smith)
    Why Fades a Dream? (Irene Britton Smith)
    Dream Variations (Brandon Spencer)
    Spring Song (Hilbert Stewart)
    One Day (Howard Swanson)
    I Went to Heaven (George Walker)
    Norris Swamp (Aurelia Young)

    Voice Type: 36 Songs are for High Voice - Medium to High Voice
    24 Songs are for Medium - Medium to Low Voice

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