Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?

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The Journal of the Society for American Music




William Levi Dawson (1899–1990) is remembered chiefly for his masterful choral arrangements of Negro spirituals and for his multi-decade leadership of the Tuskegee Institute Choir. In 1934, however, his career seemed to be headed in a very different direction: Leopold Stokowski programmed Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony on four Philadelphia Orchestra concerts that met with acclaim from critics and audiences alike. The broadcast of one of these concerts on the Columbia Broadcasting System had a particularly powerful impact on the many African Americans in the radio audience. Materials in the William Levi Dawson Collection at Emory University illuminate both the momentousness of the symphony's debut and its provocatively minor impact on the trajectory of its composer's career. This article examines the premiere of the Negro Folk Symphony as a groundbreaking event both public and personal, offers an explanation for the symphony's startlingly rapid descent into obscurity, and argues that this effective and fascinating work merits renewed attention from conductors and scholars today.