I bet if I mentioned the name Harry Burleigh as a significant person who helped develop American music, you wouldn’t know the name. That’s why a friend of mine, Craig von Buseck, has authored a new book called “Nobody Knows: The Harry T. Burleigh Story,” due out this January from Baker Books.
Burleigh was born in Erie, PA, back in 1866, and later moved to New York City. He was the first black composer to be instrumental in the development of American music. He brought black music to classically-trained white artists, melding the two styles together.
In 1893, Burleigh assisted the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, transferring the manuscript of Dvořák’s 9th symphony for the parts for various instruments. In addition, Burleigh introduced Dvořák to African-American folk music, who used elements from it in his New World Symphony.
As a baritone singer, Burleigh broke down barriers as a black man singing in an all-white church– St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City. Proving his voice transcended his color, he also sang in the synagogue choir for 25 years at Temple Emanu-El in New York, and he was the only black man to sing there.
Never one to rest, Burleigh also become well known and respected as a composer of songs. He published several versions of the spiritual song, “Deep River,” in 1916 and 1917, and became known for arranging spirituals for both voice and piano.
Having died from heart failure in 1949, his career was eclipsed by the likes of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. In 2008, an album of Burleigh’s songs was released by Karen Parks, and it made it to #2 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Album Chart. Now, with the publication of the new book about Burleigh’s life, expect more people to know about this pioneer singer-composer. –Mark Weber