William L. Dawson

Dublin Core


William L. Dawson


Calhoun County, Anniston, Music, Alabama Music Hall of Fame


William L. Dawson (September 26, 1899-May 4, 1990)

William Levi Dawson was an African American composer, performer, and music educator from Anniston, Alabama.

Dawson graduated from the Tuskegee Institute with highest honors in 1921. He earned a bachelor of music degree from Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925. He studied under Felix Borowski at the Chicago Musical College and studied under Adolph Weidig at the American Conservatory, where he earned a master’s degree in music in 1927. Dawson served as first trombonist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra from 1926 to 1930. He won a Chicago Daily News contest for band directors in 1929. Shortly after, he was awarded the Wanamaker Contest prize for the song “Jump Back Honey, Jump Back” and the orchestral composition “Scherzo.”

In 1931, Dawson became director of the School of Music at the Tuskegee Institute. As director, he conducted the 100-voice a cappella choir during its engagement at the opening of the Radio City Music Hall in New York; the choir also performed at Carnegie Hall, the White House and Constitution Hall and completed a series of national and international radio broadcasts. In 1934, the choir made a tour of international and interracial good will to the British Isles, Europe, and the Soviet Union. Years later, the United States State Department sent Dawson to Spain to conduct various choral groups. In 1956, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music by the Tuskegee Institute.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was as composer of the Negro Folk Symphony which combined melody and rhythm from Negro spirituals with his own original material. The Negro Folk Symphony was presented by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1934. In 1952, Dawson visited seven West African countries, after which he revised the symphony to include rhythm inspired by African influences. He recorded Negro Folk Symphony for Decca Records in 1961. Dawson was a guest conductor for the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra in 1966, Wayne State University Glee Club in 1970, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1975.

Dawson was inducted into the Alabama Arts Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and received the Alabama Arts Award in 1980. He received honorary doctorates from Lincoln University in 1978 and Ithaca College in 1982. In 1983, Dawson received the Alumni Merit Award from Tuskegee Institute, at age 90.


Joy Caitlin Monroe, University of North Alabama


“William Levi Dawson.” Alabama Music Hall of Fame. (2016) <http://alamhof.org/inductees/timeline/1989/william-levi-dawson/>


Alabama Cultural Resource Survey