Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries here in the United States, the story for countless Afro-Americans has been the journey from the south, to the north. Well for one composer, the journey was the exact opposite.

Hi there – my name’s Loki Karuna and on this edition of Noteworthy I’d like to draw your attention to a man who not only traveled to the south for the sake of Black folk, but did so by utilizing the power of music. A man named Robert Nathaniel Dett.

Nathaniel Dett was born in October of 1882, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. He spent his childhood years playing the piano in his church – a place now known as the R. Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel, and eventually found himself in Ohio where he attended the Oberlin Conservatory and honed his skills as a composer, highlighting his love and respect for Negro Spirituals in many of his compositions.

Following his graduation, he went down to Tennessee, where he inspired the next generation of young Black musicians by showcasing what’s possible at the unique intersection of the Black experience and classical music. This work, titled “The Ordering of Moses”, recounts the cultural and historical relationship between the ancient story of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, and its relation to Black freedom here in the US.

Before his death in 1943, Nathaniel Dett was awarded Honorary Doctorates from both the Oberlin Conservatory and Howard University! His legacy as a groundbreaking Canadian-American Black composer continues to grow till this day, earning him a spot among history’s most noteworthy composers.

Noteworthy is a production of WDAV classical public radio.

Pictured: Robert Nathaniel Dett by Unattributed – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division (digital ID ppmsca.17487), Public Domain.