Saturday, February 20, 2016 History Minute: William Grant Still [A noted composer of Popular and Classical Music]

William Grant Still

(Photo is the sole property of William Grant Still Music, and is used with permission.)

William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List by Dr. Dominique-Rene de Lerma.

Posted: February 20, 2016

William Grant Still was a noted composer of popular and classical music. Though facing a difficult childhood, the Arkansan overcame his early setbacks and found the way to let his artistic spirit soar.
Still was born in May 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi, in the southwestern corner of that state.
His father died shortly after he was born, leaving him and his mother penniless. She soon moved with him to Little Rock to live with her mother. Eventually, his mother found work as a school teacher and remarried. Still’s stepfather, a railway postal clerk named Charles Shepperson, was an amateur musician who kindled Still’s passion for music.
As a teenager, Still began taking formal violin lessons, showing immense promise along the way.
In 1911, he graduated M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock as the valedictorian. He briefly attended Wilberforce University in Ohio initially to study medicine before dropping out in favor of a musical career. He began playing in various bands and orchestras across the Midwest. He enrolled at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio in 1917 to pursue a formal study of music but dropped out again when the United States entered World War I and he enlisted in the navy.
Shortly after World War I, he traveled to Harlem, New York, where dozens of black writers, musicians, and artists were gathering and forming one of the most vibrant and talented artistic communities of the twentieth century.
Still was swept up in the Harlem Renaissance, as it was called, working with a variety of musicians and performing across the city. He studied music with many more established artists and began composing his own works as well.
During the 1920s and 1930s, he composed dozens of classical works, which were performed by symphony orchestras across the Northeast. Among his works were From the Land of Dreams and From the Journal of a Wanderer, both completed in 1924. His most noted work was The Afro-American Symphony, completed in 1930. This became the first work composed by an African-American to be performed by a major orchestra. Several of his works were performed at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City. In 1939, he wrote the music for the New York World’s Fair, Theme of a City, which was played an estimated 31,857 times for the millions of visitors to the fair.


Dr. Ken Bridges, a history professor at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, can be reached at The South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society is dedicated to educating the public about the state’s rich history. The SAHPS can be contacted at PO Box 144, El Dorado, AR, 71730, or at

Comment by email:
Bill, Our thanks to you and to Dr. Bridges for this most welcome attention to the composer.  We are grateful for the piece, and the publication on your blog. I have to say that I think the Harlem Renaissance did not begin with Claude McKay's writings--it began with "Shuffle Along" and William Grant Still, absolutely.  The success of "Shuffle Along" was without a doubt the impetus, and "Runnin' Wild," and with the arranger who was called "Something of a genius, we think."  Remember that when Still and Johnson originated the Charleston, Negro culture became a commodity, and Negro music and arts, which had been very fine for some time before, we suddenly acknowledged.
Thanks for this blog.  [Judith Anne Still] 

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