William Levi Dawson

William Levi Dawson


• 1899 1990


Despite his varied musical pursuits, African-American composer and conductor William Levi Dawson will be forever linked to the Tuskegee Institute and its world-famous choir. An imaginative composer and arranger, Dawson brought African-American spirituals and folk songs out of the fields and chapels and into the mainstream of twentieth-century choral music.

Dawson entered the Tuskegee Institute as a student at the age of fifteen; after graduating in 1921, he studied at the Eastman School of Music, eventually earning degrees from the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City and the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. An accomplished trombonist, he played with the Chicago Civic Orchestra before devoting his energies to teaching and composing.

In 1931, Dawson returned to the Tuskegee Institute to assume the directorship of the School of Music. Under his tutelage, the Tuskegee Choir rose to worldwide prominence, making a number of successful tours throughout Europe and North America. Dawson's own compositions, written in a neo-Romantic style, often make use of African-American folk song themes. His best-known concert work, the Negro Folk Symphony (1934), was premiered and subsequently recorded by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Dawson's arrangements of African-American spirituals, characterized by rhythmic intensity and an adventuresome harmonic language, are today regarded as classics of the twentieth-century choral repertoire. After his retirement from the Tuskegee Institute in 1955, Dawson traveled to Spain as a musical ambassador and conductor under the auspices of the State Department. Dawson remained active as a lecturer and composer until his death in 1990.