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The Poetry of Music: The Howard Swanson Papers at the Amistad Research Center

by Felicia D. Render, Archivist

Composer Howard Swanson. Image by Maurice Seymour. Held at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago. Used with permission.
Composer Howard Swanson. Image by Maurice Seymour. Held at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago. Used with permission.

“The only thing I live for is my music.” —Howard Swanson

Throughout history, people and groups honor their cultural heritage through artistic expressions of lyrics and music. They, in turn, are passionate about passing down their elements of sound – either through playing instruments, vocal melodic renditions of classical songs, or poetic tones and other unique ways of presenting culture. Musician and composer Howard Swanson became that vessel for continuing the culture of African American classical music history. Many of Swanson’s compositions centered around his friendship with poet Langston Hughes, which provided insight to music and traditions of the African American community. Swanson and Hughes were friends and collaborators during the Harlem Renaissance and their work offered an intimate view into the psyche of Hughes’ poetry. In celebration of National Poetry Month, we are highlighting the papers of African American classical music composer Howard Swanson, which are currently housed at the Amistad Research Center.

The Amistad Research Center acquired the Howard Swanson Papers through the assistance of fellow composers Hale Smith and Roger Dickerson, whose papers are also held at the Center. The Swanson papers consist mainly of music manuscripts and many unpublished music scores. Renowned for his songs based on the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Swanson was born in Atlanta on August 18, 1907 to Mamie Thomas and Howard Swanson, Sr. As a child, Swanson became highly involved in his church community; possessing a beautiful soprano voice, he sang duets with his mother at their church. He lived on his father’s farm outside Atlanta during the summers.

During the first wave of the Great Migration, the Swanson family decided to seek social and economic opportunities by moving north to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916. Here, Swanson began to study piano, and ultimately graduated from Cleveland’s Glenville High School in 1925, the same year his father died. The death of Swanson’s father created financial hardship for the Swanson family and inevitably forced Howard to assist his mother and siblings. To support the family, Swanson worked for his father’s former employer, New York Central Railroad. He also worked for over ten years at the United States Postal Service.

Swanson didn’t settle for a life plagued by financial struggles. After many years of working to support his family, Howard was determined to follow his musical passions of playing the piano and becoming a music composer. In 1930, Swanson attended the Cleveland Institute of Music and received his bachelor’s degree in music theory. He studied with composer Herbert Elwell.

Praised for his high quality of songwriting, Swanson received many fellowships, awards and prizes for his work. Swanson traveled to Paris, France, on a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939 and was taught by French composer Nadia Boulanger. He composed his first symphony in 1943, titled Short Symphony. Another highlight in Swanson’s career occurred on January 15, 1950. Opera singer Marian Anderson performed his 1942 setting of a Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” at New York's Carnegie Hall. Several years later, in 1952, Swanson received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received a New York Critics Circle Citation that year.

The Swanson Papers housed at the Amistad Research Center consists of 18.02 linear feet and primarily document the life of Howard Swanson and his contribution to classical music history. Formats in the collection include correspondence, financial records, memorabilia and programs of Swanson’s performances. The bulk of the collection consists of music manuscripts, including several unpublished works. Additionally, the papers contain programs, photographs and newspaper and magazine articles about Swanson’s performances. Programs are dated from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Amistad is honored to preserve and provide access to Howard Swanson’s contribution to classical music history. Swanson’s life proved his passion for music was, in his own words, “the only thing I live for.” His lifestyle and musical values are well-documented within his papers and are detailed within his songs which incorporate jazz and blues influences, including a classical music interpretation of Langston Hughes’ poem, “Joy.” Swanson’s song writing preferences was for linear construction and lyrical works with subtle tonal centers, representing rhythm and structure — the similarities between poetry and music. In essence, Swanson and Hughes’ legacy of music and poetry in culture became an important portal to discovering myriad historical moments.

The project to preserve and open the Howard Swanson Papers is funded in part by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.


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