Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh, “The Father of Spirituals,” was a composer, arranger, and baritone soloist, the first African-American singer to have a performance recorded. Composer of more than two hundred concert songs and adaptations of African-American spirituals, he was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
Born in 1866 in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh learned traditional black songs from his grandfather. He grew up singing in churches and synagogues and worked also as a doorman for musicales, where the performances he heard led to his love for classical music.
In 1892 he received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music. His association with the Conservatory’s director, Antonín Dvořák, profoundly influenced the careers of both men. Dvořák was a noted composer when they met. Burleigh sang him the black spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his grandfather. The influence of “Goin Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” can be heard in Dvořák’s New World Symphony no. 9 in E minor. Dvořák encouraged Burleigh to preserve these songs. Burleigh’s work as a copyist for Dvořák prepared him for a later job as a music editor.
In 1894, Burleigh auditioned for the post of soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York. Though the congregation objected to his color, he won the position, which he held for fifty years. In time he won the respect of the church community.
In 1898, he married poet Louise Alston; their son, Alston, was born in 1899. That same year, G. Schirmer published Burleigh’s first three songs. In 1900 he became the first African-American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El in New York. By 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi. His success was enhanced through the publication of several of his compositions, including “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), a collection entitled Jubilee Songs of the USA (1916), and his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), for which he is best remembered.
The widespread success of “Deep River” inspired the publication of more spirituals in multiple formats for varied choruses. For solists he wrote original song cycles, Saracen Songs (1914), Passionale (1915), and Five Songs of Laurence Hope (1915), considered by many to be his finest work. He wrote instrumental music, too, and lectured at black colleges across the country.
He died in 1949 at the age of 82. More than 2,000 mourners attended his funeral, honoring the musician who had successfully combined the melodies of his own heritage with those of serious art music. Burleigh’s compositions and arrangements transported the music of the “colored folk” from their plantation and minstrel settings onto the concert stage, where they are still enjoyed and appreciated by people of all races.