The Negro Spiritual

The Dawson Centennial Reflections from a Former Student

By Clyde Owen Jackson

William L. Dawson, one of the world’s most celebrated and best known African-American composers, arranger of Negro Spirituals and music historian, would have been 100 years old this year. Born in Anniston, Alabama, September 26, 1899, Dawson won fame as composer of the Negro Folk Symphony (premiered in 1934 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra) and for more than a quarter century as director of the world famous Tuskegee Institute Choir.

I was Mr. Dawson’s student and a member of his choir from 1945 through 1949.  In 1946, I was blessed to sing with the choir for the unveiling of the bust of Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington in the New York University Hall of Fame.It was the first time an African-American was so honored.While in New York, we sang on a nation-wide radio concert with Nat “King” Cole to benefit the United Negro College Fund. On the return trip to Tuskegee, we broke the color barrier at famed Constitution Hall in Washington D.C, with a concert before a packed house.  The hall’s owners,The Daughters of American Revolution (DAR) had denied fame black contralto Marian Anderson use of the facility for a concert in 1939.

I was not old enough to sing with the Tuskegee Choir when the singers, led by Dawson, sang for the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1932. (There they were held over by popular demand for four weeks). The trip to New York and the Constitution Hall performance were milestones in African American History.But for all my involvement in these 1946 historical events, I wonder if my most memorable choir moments were not in New York or Washington or even the beautiful three time a week on campus chapel services for which we sang.It seems to me the most dear moments to me were those each-evening-at-six rehearsals in Tuskegee’s Carnegie Music Hall. I, even, today, as Tuskegee Choir Director, am haunted by the recollection of it all. Those moving Negro Spirituals were balm for my soul after many a weary day. Then, as now, they stir and stirred in me a bonding with our slave ancestors that will not let me go.


“Lord, I cain’t turn back!
Lord, I cain’t turn back!
Lord, I cain’t turn back!
Just because I been born again”

“Have you been redeemed?
Cert’ny Lawd!
Have you been redeemed”
Cert’ny Lawd! Cert’ny Lawd!
Cert’ny Lawd!”

“Come down!
All you Holy Angel
Wid yo’ golden harps….”

William Levi Dawson died May 2, 1990. He is buried here at Tuskegee just outside the chapel, only a few yards from my office where I write these words.  Sunday, some of my students and I gathered at his grave and sang.

Clyde Owen Jackson

Clyde Owen Jackson is a native of Galveston, Texas, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute and of Texas Southern University; he holds three college degrees. Further he is the author of eight published books, including The Songs of Our Years , which is a study of Negro Folk Music (spirituals) and Come Like the Benediction - A Tribute to Tuskegee.

Jackson is a former infantry army officer and is former editor of the Omaha Guide, The Arkansas State Press, and The Texas Informer group of newspapers.

Additional achievements of his include those of his being retired Postmaster of Galveston, Texas and a Minister of Music Emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston.He has served as conductor of a host of choirs and has been the recipient of many and different kinds of awards.

Importantly, he is now back home at Tuskegee, conducting the Tuskegee Institute Choir - perhaps within hearing distance of William Levi Dawson who is nearby and who he obviously admires.

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