William Dawson (1899-1992) was born to a former slave. In 1912, Dawson ran away from home to study music full-time as a pre-college student at the Tuskegee Institute (now University) under the tutelage of school president Booker T. Washington. Dawson paid his tuition by being a music librarian for the music department as well as manual laborer in the school’s Agricultural Division. He played in both the band and orchestra, composing and traveling extensively with the Tuskegee Singers for five years and had learned to play most of the instruments by the time he graduated from the high school division in 1921. In 1925 he graduated from the Horner Institute with a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition. While still an undergraduate student, he worked as music director in both a vocational college and a high school. In 1926, Dawson moved to Chicago to study composition at the American Conservatory of Music, where he earned his master’s degree in 1927. Dawson also played trombone with the Redpath Chautauqua and the Chicago Civic Symphony Orchestra. In September 1930, Dawson accepted Tuskegee Institute’s invitation to direct its School of Music, a position that he held until his retirement in 1955. During his directorship, in 1932, Tuskegee’s choir performed at the grand opening of the Radio City Music Hall in New York, at the White House for President Herbert Hoover, and at Hyde Park, New York, for future president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1946, the choir broke the race barrier at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall as they became the first African Americans to perform there, something even Marian Anderson had been denied (by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939).
Although he wrote some chamber music, his best orchestral and choral works were based on spirituals like his Negro Folk Symphony (1934), which was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Accounts of the concert describe the spontaneous applause at the conclusion of the first movement, which in 1934 Philadelphia was unheard of. In this way he continued the lineage of American music that had been attempted to be started by Dvorak (“The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States”). It was revised in 1952 with greater African rhythms inspired by the composer’s trip to West Africa. The composition was “an attempt to convey the missing elements that were lost when Africans came into bondage outside of their homeland.” He died in 1990, and is buried at Tuskegee University where his legacy continues through the Golden Voices Choir.