William Levi Dawson was an African Americancomposer, choir director, and professor specializing in black religious folkmusic. He was born on September 26,1899, in Anniston, Alabama to Eliza Starkey and George Dawson, thefirst of their seven children. His father, a former slave, was an illiterateday laborer. In1912, Dawson ran away from home to study music full-time as a pre-collegestudent at the Tuskegee Institute (now University) under the tutelage of schoolpresident Booker T. Washington. Dawson paidhis tuition by being a music librarian and manual laborer working in theschool’s Agricultural Division. He also participatedas a member of Tuskegee’s band and orchestra, composing and travelingextensively with the Tuskegee Singers for five years; he had learned to playmost of the instruments by the time he graduated from the high school division in1921.
Dawson’s next four years (1921-25) were spent earning his B.A. degree. He enrolled in composition and orchestrationat Washburn College in Topeka, and theory and counterpoint at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, where in 1925 he graduatedwith a Bachelor degree in Music Theory and in Composition.While still an undergraduate student he displayed his genius in chamber music compositionswhile at the same time supporting himself as the director ofmusic at Kansas Vocational Collegein Topeka, Kansas, and at Lincoln High School inKansas City, Missouri.
In 1926 Dawson moved to Chicago, Illinois to study composition at the AmericanConservatory of Music, where he earned his master’s degree in 1927. Dawson also became nationally renowned between1926 and 1930 as a trombonist with the Redpath Chautauqua and the Chicago CivicSymphony Orchestra; and in 1929-1930 as a local band director, winningprestigious band director contests from the ChicagoDaily News (1929), and the Wanamaker Competition for the songs “Jump Back,Honey, Jump Back” and “Scherzo” (1930).
In 1928 tragedy struck as Dawson’s wife CornellaLampton died within the first year of their marriage.