Emory Report
February 21, 2005
Volume 57, Number 20


Emory Report homepage   >   Current issue front page

February 21, 2005
Celebrating a music pioneer

dwight andrews is associate professor of music theory and african american music

When I first learned of Emory’s receipt of the William Levi Dawson papers in 2001, my excitement was palpable. The legacy of a 20th century pioneer African American composer would now be available for careful research and scrutiny.

My excitement soon was tempered, however, when I realized that many of my friends, colleagues and even scholars of American music knew little or nothing of Dawson. This was a sober reminder of the short cultural memory of artists at the margin; black composers such as William Grant Still, Florence Price and Undine Smith Moore are virtually absent in the literature on 20th century music. Their contributions often have been underestimated or misunderstood.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the 21st century suggests that little has changed in our understanding of the rich and diverse tapestry that is American music and the African American’s role in it. For these reasons, I am encouraged by an important gathering that will take place at Emory, March 3–5.

“In Celebration of William Dawson: An Exploration of African American Music and Identity at the Dawn of the 21st Century” is a three-day event featuring concerts and conversations with some of the leading scholars, artists, cultural critics, composers and performers of our time. It will consider the meaning of racial and ethnic identities in our understanding and interpretation of 21st century music. It will be an intergenerational as well as interdisciplinary gathering, with participants representing the entire gamut of musical styles and genres.
Some of the questions we will ask in this conference are: Does race still matter? In what ways do we impose racial expectations upon our artists? What is an artist’s responsibility to his or her race? Is such a question still relevant, racist, or both? What does “appropriation” mean in today’s world, where cultural geography is affected more by technology than by place? Equally important, is race a reality or a social construct? These and other important issues are the foundation for the gathering of composers, scholars and artists who will consider the state of race and our understanding, appreciation and critique of 21st century music.

A prolific African American composer, choral director and music educator, Dawson was born in 1899. That same year Scott Joplin composed the Maple Leaf Rag and Arnold Schoenberg composed Verklärte Nacht. Duke Ellington was born that year, while Buddy Bolden was playing in New Orleans and Eubie Blake was playing in Baltimore.

The musical landscape, both in the United States and abroad, was undergoing dramatic change. Dawson’s life would reflect these transformations through a career that spanned nearly eight decades. In musical circles, he would become one of the 20th century’s most respected African American composers. His most famous orchestral work, Negro Folk Symphony, had its world premiere in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. Dawson’s arrangements of Negro spirituals now represent part of the canon of choral societies throughout the world.

Dawson was born in Anniston, Ala., to a poor family that could not afford to send him to school. Inspired by traveling music shows and determined to get an education, he ran away from home at the age of 13 and took a train to Tuskegee. There he was permitted to enroll and pay his tuition by farming on evenings and weekends. Dawson joined the choir, played trombone in the band, traveled with the Tuskegee Singers and graduated in 1921. He taught band at several schools in Kansas and, by 1925, was supervising the instrumental program for all the black schools in the city.

In 1927 Dawson moved to Chicago, where he became first chair trombonist in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and began work on his own symphony. Three years later he returned to Tuskegee to establish its School of Music and direct its choir, which soon became one of the most popular of its generation. The choir performed in Radio City Music Hall in 1932, appeared in Washington’s Constitution Hall in 1946 (breaking the race barrier that had prevented Marian Anderson from singing there), and traveled the world. Dawson both arranged and composed choral works and established his own music publishing business. He retired from Tuskegee in 1955 and died in Montgomery, Ala., in 1990.

As a young musician, Dawson, along with other pioneers of his generation such as John Wesley Work and Harry T. Burleigh, came under the strong influence of European nationalist composers such as Anton Devorák. They were encouraged to capture their “Negro” folk idioms and transform them into the art appropriate to the “New Negro” (though Dawson himself would always insist that he should not be categorized as being influenced by the music of the Harlem Renaissance).

Within this aspiration, one already senses the complicated and even contradictory impulses being suggested. After all, if the essence of the Negro folk song conveyed the power and ethos of the African American, why was transformation even necessary? Such debates were a part of the intellectual and aesthetic ferment of the 1920s and 30s, and the intensity of such questions continues to this day.

The race factor was never far from the surface; complicated racial overtones shaped Dawson’s work and our understanding of it. Though many black composers in the early 20th century were trained at some of the finest conservatories both here and abroad, they were restricted to employment at black institutions, such as Fisk, Tuskegee and the Hampton Institute. Ironically, this imposed racial segregation provided the context out of which Dawson’s prolific spiritual arrangements evolved. Dawson’s career at Tuskegee spanned more than 25 years.

Composers such as Dawson had distinct self-concepts of what race meant. Clearly there was no party line. While some composers of his generation resisted any kind of ethnic or racial label, others felt racial identity was key to understanding their artistic and aesthetic frame of reference. Dawson, for example, in a 1933 New York Times interview, said in regard to Negro Folk Symphony, “To me, the finest compliment that could be paid my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say, ‘Only a Negro could have written that.’”

The symposium will consider important aesthetic issues such as the meaning of changing relationships between concert and vernacular traditions; the ways in which art, literature and other artistic genres intersect with musical forms; and the modes in which cultural arts institutions think about and program works by African American composers. This interdisciplinary conversation is one that a broad array of students, faculty, and the general public will find both provocative and productive.

It is particularly satisfying that such an important national conversation will take place in this city and at this University. Atlanta is rapidly becoming the epicenter for much of today’s vibrant popular music industry, and Emory’s extraordinary archives in African American and Southern culture, along with our distinguished faculty, make us a natural host.

There is no question that race continues to be a factor in understanding or even considering who we are and what we create. Does race matter in the same way as it did a century ago? We hope to discover what has—or hasn’t—changed.

For more information on the March 3–5 conference, visit www.music.emory.edu.