Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fred Onovwerosuoke: “Negro Folk Symphony” “motif may well have sprung out of 'Olele'”

[Negro Folk Symphony by William Levi Dawson; Decca Records LP]

A visitor to has requested help in identifying the spiritual used by William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) in the first four notes of Movement I of the Negro Folk Symphony, The Bond of Africa (11:03). He did not find an answer in the liner notes of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra CD Chandos 9226 (1993). The visitor notes that the same theme appears in compositions of George Antheil.

We asked some of our associates for their opinions, and received a very informative comment from Dr. Fred Onovwerosuoke. We also invite further commentary from readers. Dr. Onovwerosuoke writes:

“In Dawson's 'Negro Folk Symphony' the opening motif perhaps alludes to phrasal material from a great number of African-American Spirituals (aka Negro Spirituals) AND a familiar strain in some West African melodies. Perhaps after Dawson's 1952 trip to West Africa he became particularly inspired by the commonalities he heard in West African melodies and Spirituals, hence his revision of the work. Perhaps he saw a need to show a cultural linkage,... one will never know. There might be a clue if there exists some interview with the composer after his revision of the work.... Anyhow, while the opening motif may allude to a phrasal fragment in familiar Spirituals, say, 'Talk About a Child Who Do Love Jesus,' 'When I Get Home,' 'Poor Mourner Got a Home at Last,' etc., the motif may well have sprung out of 'Olele' (an ageless Yoruba tune commonly heard in Nigeria, Benin Republic and even Cuba), or 'Ni Ntaro' (a Foula tune commonly heard from Senegal to Burkina Faso and more), and indeed a great deal many West African tunes that draw on pentatonic traits.

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