by Eugene Thamon Simpson, Ed.D.
William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990) was born in Anniston, Alabama. At an early age, he demonstrated an indomitable will and determination to become a musician and to escape the drudgery of farm life. This was coupled with a spirit of optimism and the belief that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to. At the age of 15, he ran away from home (with the aid of his mother) to attend Tuskegee Institute where he completed his high school and Normal School education. He later received his Bachelor of Music from the Horner Institute of Musical Arts and a Master’s from the American Conservatory of Music.
In 1931, he returned to Tuskegee Institute to head the Department of Music for the next 25 years where he established a notable music faculty and a renown Tuskegee Institute Choir that became famous virtually overnight by performing for several weeks at the opening of Radio City Music Hall in New York in 1932. The choir was famous for its singing of Spirituals, all of which were arranged by Dawson. Perhaps the most frequently performed of these arrangements is “Ain’ta That Good News.” The joy and exuberance of this work are a testament to the faith of an enslaved people in the promise of “My Jesus” that despite the deprivation and degradation of their earthly existence they only needed to forsake the sins of the world and accept the Cross of Christ to be guaranteed their reward in Heaven, a reward symbolized by a long white robe and a starry crown.
Francis Hall Johnson (1888 – 1970) was born in Athens, Georgia into a well-educated middle class family. His father had been born a free man and his mother had been a slave for only eight years. William Decker, the father, was a Methodist Minister and held a Master’s Degree and his mother attended Atlanta University. The Johnson family was musical and Hall studied piano and solfege. But when he attended a concert by violinist Joseph Douglass (son of Frederick Douglass) he was so captivated by the instrument that he was determined to “play like that.” He acquired a violin and was self-taught from the age of 15, until he gave his first recital at the age of 18. His academic education was extensive and included the Knox Institute, Atlanta University, Allen University, where he received his Bachelor’s Degree (His father was then President of Allen University), University of Pennsylvania, the Juilliard School (then the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts), Philadelphia Musical Academy and the University of Southern California. In 1925, Johnson, who had a successful career as a violist in the stage bands in New York and other major cities, became so concerned about what he considered the corruption of the Spirituals as performed by the quartets in the shows he played for, that he decided to devote himself fulltime to collecting, arranging and performing these works with respect and authenticity. He formed the Hall Johnson Negro Choir and in only three years, they made a successful debut at Town Hall, and two years later provided the music for “The Green Pastures,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway Show of 1930. For the next forty years, Johnson promoted the Spiritual with tours of America and Europe, with over 30 movies, and with solo and choral arrangements sung by major artists and choral groups all over the world. He has been called by musicologists with some justification “Preserver of the Negro Spiritual.”
I’ll Never Turn Back No More is a touching statement of optimism and determination. The mood and the minor mode seem to identify this as a “Crucifixion Spiritual.” Jesus has gone back to Heaven but the believers will not recant what he has taught. They will pursue his path with renewed determination until they again see Jesus’ face for his track is plainly visible. The obbligato in the final chorus is an essential element in many of Johnson’s arrangements and sometimes reflects ecstatic expressions of individual congregants and at other times, simply the importance of solo or lead voices in enhancing the choral texture.
Honor! Honor! This joyous Spiritual is a Ceremonial Spiritual about the Sacrament of Baptism. All the elements are present: the candle, the water, the children, prayer and the baptismal act. Johnson’s artful treatment of this traditional melody organizes it into a typical 3-part form with the joyous and rapid sections at the beginning and the end, and with the slow and prayerful section in the middle. He also published a solo arrangement of this work that is even more popular than the choral arrangement.
Lord, I Don’t Feel Noways Tired is a perfect example of the "Call and Response" Spiritual. The soloist lines out the call: "I am seeking for a city," and the choir or congregation follows with the response: "Hallelujah." Once again, the text focuses on seeking for Heaven and for a better day. The subjects affirm their endurance with the words “Oh Lord I Don’t Feel Noways Tired” despite the travails of their earthly existence. They are confident in their faith and salvation so they can actually shout "Glory" when Christ returns and the world is on fire.
Undine Smith Moore (1904 – 1989) was born in Jarratt, Virginia. At the age of four, her parents moved to Petersburg which remained her home until her death. She earned degrees from Virginia State College, the Juilliard School and a Master’s from Columbia University. She joined the faculty at Virginia State as a teacher of Theory, Piano and Organ in 1927 and continued to teach there until 1972. Known as the Dean of African American women composers, Professor Moore wrote more than 100 works of which about one quarter were published. Her Cantata, “Scenes from the Life of a Martyr,” commemorating the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. received many performances across America. Of her many arrangements of Spirituals, “Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord” is the most popular. The arrangement recounts the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, always from the viewpoint of either the narrator or the king. If the traditional melody evolved during slavery, it would be a personal reflection of a Gospel story brought from the church service and related to others who could not attend. While it does not have the personal manifestations of faith and optimism of the previous Spirituals, the elements may be assumed: the faith of Daniel to spend the night in the lion’s den -- and the power of God to send Angels down to lock the lion’s jaws. As the work lacks essential sacredness, it is far more suitable for concert than for worship.