Harry Burleigh, a dedicated gospel performer

Harry Burleigh
Sun, 1866-12-02

*Harry T. Burleigh was born on this date in 1866. He was an African American gospel singer and composer.

From Erie Pennsylvania, he was the grandson of slaves. It was his grandfather that passed on to him the tradition of plantation songs. Burleigh had little formal music training in his youth, but was accepted into the National Conservatory of Music at the age of 26. There he took voice and lessons in composition with Antonin Dvorek.

It was from Burleigh that Dvorek learned about Black American folk music (which later was so important in his New World Symphony.) There are various estimates of the number of songs Burleigh wrote. The numbers range from 200 to 300. They include arrangements used in Henry E. Krehbiel's 1914 collection, Afro-American Folksongs, a Study in Racial and National Music, "By an' By" (1917), "Go Down Moses" (1917), "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (1917), and an Old Songs Hymnal in 1929. Over the years, he performed for such dignitaries as the King and Queen of England and President Theodore Roosevelt.

He encouraged the careers of young musicians like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Carol Brice, Margaret Bonds, and William Grant Still. Burleigh was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) when it formed in 1914 and became a member of its board of directors in 1941. He received a number of honors, including the Spingarn Medal in 1917, and honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University. In 1944, members of St. George's (of New York City) recognized him with gifts of $1,500 and a silver-banded cane. Later that year, he gave the fiftieth annual performance of Jean-Baptiste Faure's "The Palms" at both morning and afternoon services.

Burleigh also did a special broadcast performance over a local radio station, for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Illness forced his retirement as soloist in 1946. His son, Alston, placed him first in a Long Island rest home then to a nursing home in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1948. On September 12, 1949, Harry T. Burleigh died of heart failure at the age of 82.

His funeral was held at St. George's and was attended by 2,000 people. The pallbearers included composers Hall Johnson, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, William C. Handy, and Cameron White.

ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

To Become a Musician or Singer

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Burleigh, Harry T.