As a composer, Dawson began at a young age, and it was early on in his compositional career that his Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano was performed by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra. Besides chamber music, he is also known for his contributions to both orchestral and choral literature. His best known works are arrangements and variations on spirituals; his Negro Folk Symphony of 1934 garnered a great deal of attention at its world premiere, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The symphony was later revised in 1952 with greater African rhythms inspired by the composer's trip to West Africa. The composition was — the composer conveyed — an attempt to convey the missing elements that were lost when Africans came into bondage outside their homeland. In creating this work, Dawson was influenced by the nationalistic views of Dvořák. Widely performed, his most popular spirituals include "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel", "Jesus Walked the Lonesome Valley", "Talk about a Child That Do Love Jesus" and "King Jesus Is a-Listening". Dawson was elected to and initiated into the national honorary Alpha Alpha Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity in 1977.
Dawson's arrangements of traditional African-American spirituals are widely published in the United States and are regularly performed by school, college and community choral ensembles.
In honor of Dawson's impact on male choral music, on February 25, 1968 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Beginning in 1964, this award "Established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression."
Negro Folk Symphony (1934)
I. The Bond of Africa
II. Hope in the Night
III. O Let Me Shine!
Jesus Walked the Lonesome Valley
Talk about a Child That Do Love Jesus
King Jesus Is a-Listening.
Soon Ah Will Be Done-a wid daTroubles Of The World