William Grant Still (1895-1978) is often considered the Dean of African-American composers. He was responsible for many firsts during his distinguished career. He was the first African-American to have a symphony played by a famous orchestra (his popular Afro-American Symphony), the first to conduct a major American orchestra, and the first to have a major opera company produce one of his works. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he showed early talent on the violin. Beginning undergraduate studies towards a B.S. degree at Wilberforce University, he conducted the band there and learned several wind instruments between his classes. He transferred to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he was granted a special scholarship by the faculty, and later went on to graduate studies at the New England Conservatory. His notable teachers include George Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. His wife and greatest collaborator was the pianist Verna Arvey, and their papers are housed at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville library. His output of more than 150 works includes operas, symphonies, ballets, chamber music, vocal music, and a precious handful of wind band works.
Still wrote From the Delta in 1945 for the Goldman Band in New York City. Its three movements (Work Song; Spiritual; Dance) paint vivid portraits of scenes from Mississippi delta life: a chain gang sings their way through hard labor; a spiritual conveys both pain and ecstasy; and a spritely dance enlivens a gathering of friends.
From the Delta is available from William Grant Still Music, which now publishes all of his music. For more on the composer himself, see Wikipedia, his William Grant Still Music bio, the Wind Repertory Project, and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Still’s granddaughter is the journalist and soprano Celeste Headlee, who continues to speak about Still and his legacy and perform his music.