While browsing through the Chicago Defender for this week’s blog post, I came across an announcement for the premier of William Dawson’s “Symphony No. 1”, and the article describes it as a HUGE deal1. But wait a minute… what’s “Symphony No. 1”? After further research, I realized that the piece in question is now called “Negro Folk Symphony”.
The newspaper article says that Dawson himself called the symphony “Symphony No. 1”. So why is it now called “Negro Folk Symphony”? Professor Gwynne Kuhner Brown sheds some light on this in her article “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?”2
Definitely read the article if you get the chance, but basically, Brown explains that Leopold Stokowski, the world-famous conductor who would be conducting the piece, sent a telegram to Dawson asking that he title his piece and the movements differently, and recommending that he call it “African American Symphony” or “Negro Symphony”. Dawson replied with the updated title “Negro Folk Symphony” as well as updated names of the movements: “The Bond of Africa”, “Hope in the Night”, and “O Lem-me Shine!”. As Brown asks in her article, would Dawson have assigned race to his symphony if not for the prodding of Stokowski?
We can’t know for sure, but we can know from the Chicago Defender article that Dawson wanted his race to be known by his audience based on this quote:
Here’s another question about the title. Dawson was advised to title the symphony “Negro Symphony”, but it is now “Negro Folk Symphony”. Why? Again, Dawson gives us an answer. In a 1979 interview, Dawson says of the themes within his symphony,
“I don’t call them spirituals. . . . Many years ago I decided that I wanted to know, what do they mean by “spiritual”? And I got an unabridged dictionary and looked it up. There were ten or fifteen definitions of the word “spiritual.” For an example, in Paris, France, they had concerts on Sunday; they called them spirituals. But these are folk songs and we have got to know and treat them as folk songs because they contain the best that’s in us. And anywhere in the civilized world, when you say, “This is a folk song,” all the nations prize their folk songs. All the great composers utilize their folk songs, their source of material for development.”3
Interestingly, the Chicago Defender does not call the sources of Dawson’s themes spirituals OR folk songs, but hymns.
So what’s the difference between a folk song, a hymn, and a spiritual, and does this question matter to our discussion of Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music? I’m not sure I have the answer, but Dawson certainly believed the answer matters, so let’s do what musicologists ought to do and ask more questions.
P.S. Here are the movements to Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. Give them a listen.
1 “William Dawson Writes Race Symphony: Piece Will be Played by Stokowski, World Famous Conductor.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jan 07, 1933. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/william-dawson-writes-race-symphony/docview/492404057/se-2?accountid=351.
2 BROWN, GWYNNE KUHNER. “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?” Journal of the Society for American Music 6, no. 4 (2012): 433–56. doi:10.1017/S1752196312000351.
3 William Levi Dawson, interview with unidentified interviewer, October 1979. William Levi Dawson Collection, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University (hereafter “Dawson Collection at MARBL, Emory University”). A portion of the interview can be heard at William Levi Dawson: The Collection at Emory, http://larson.library.emory.edu/dawson/web/section/view/sectionId7.
4 ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Negro Folk Symphony: I. The Bond of Africa”. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKpSxzw1le0
5 ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Negro Folk Symphony: II. Hope in the Night”. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv76C8-cXd4
6 ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Negro Folk Symphony: III. O Let Me Shine!”. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzCn2RMPzPo