Rhapsody in Black

William Dawson never doubted the possibilities of our music

A drawing of composer William Dawson in 1935 by Aaron Douglas. Tuskegee University Archives

Rhapsody in Black - William Dawson


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March 30, 2023

William Levi Dawson was a composer, choir director and professor specializing in Black religious folk music. Born on September 26, 1899, in Alabama, to Eliza Starkey and George Dawson, a former slave and illiterate day laborer. In 1912, Dawson ran away from home to study music full-time as a pre-college student at the Tuskegee Institute under the tutelage of school president Booker T. Washington. Today, Dawson’s work has been unearthed after years of systemic racism that keeps the history of such talented composers lost.

Musical arrangements from William Dawson

“I.The Bond of Africa” from Negro Folk Symphony

In the autumn of 1934, Dawson made the audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall go crazy at the premiere of his Negro Folk Symphony. Legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra during the premier. One of his goals in writing the work was for audiences to know that it was “unmistakably not the work of a white man.“

“Out in the Fields”

Soprano Maia Aramburú and pianist Kathryn Goodson perform Dawson’s arrgement of “Out in the Fields.”

The little cares that fretted me,
I lost them yesterday
Among the fields above the sea,
Among the winds that play,
Among the lowing of the herd,
The rustling of the trees,
Among the singing of the birds,
The humming of the bees.

The foolish fears of what might pass
I cast them all away
Among the clover-scented grass,
Among the new-mown hay,
Among the hushing of the corn,
Where drowsy poppies nod,
Where ill thoughts die and good are born —
Out in the fields with God.

“Ezekiel Saw de Wheel”

This spiritual is among Dawson’s most famous arrangements. Recorded by artists such as Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and John Lee Hooker, the song recounts Ezekiel’s divine vision from the Old Testament.


Host: Vernon Neal

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Additional music selections: Jeffrey Yelverton

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher