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.
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