Who was Harry T. Burleigh?
Henry Thacker (“Harry”) Burleigh was a revolutionary classical composer, arranger and professional singer. He was born December 2, 1866 in Erie, Pennsylvania to Elizabeth Burleigh and Harry Thacker. Through his maternal grandfather, Hamilton Waters, Burleigh and his brother were taught Negro Spirituals and Slave songs.
With his interest in classical singing, Burleigh studied voice with George F. Brierly and eventually became one of the most accomplished solo classical artists in Erie, Pennsylvania. With his success came an opportunity to study at the National Conservatory of Music in New York through a scholarship with the aid of Frances MacDowell. Being the first African-American person to get accepted into the Conservatory came with its challenges but with his time there he revolutionized the American art song to include that of the Negro Spiritual.
Harry T. Burleigh and the Negro Spiritual
Through his captivating performances of the Negro Spiritual at the conservatory, he caught the attention of a well respected composer Antonín Dvorák who worked with Burliegh to compose and arrange classical music that used the elements of what Dvorák called “negro melodies.”
Burleigh was eventually able to compose and arrange his own music and was the first Black person to arrange the Negro Spiritual in a classical art song form. His most famous arrangement of “Deep River” inspired him to arrange many more renditions of Spirituals including “Go Down Moses” (video linked below), “Lift Every Voice and Sing!”, and “By an’By.” Without his contribution to American music, Negro Spirituals could have possibly become a language forgotten.
This is the only known recording of Harry T . Burleigh’s voice.