Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh was an American singer, composer, and arranger who did more than anyone else up to his time to make available the riches of the American Negro spiritual to vast audiences. The Episcopal Church commemorates him today, September 11.
Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1866. His grandfather, Hamilton Waters, had been a slave who had been blinded by a savage beating but passed along old songs by singing them to his grandson, Harry. Burleigh had a natural voice for singing and sang when and where he could.
In 1892, with some difficulty, he won admission to the National Conservatory of Music, where he studied voice and music theory. Although never directly a pupil of Antonín Dvořák, the director of the Conservatory at the time, he worked for Dvořák copying orchestral parts. It was Burleigh who suggested to Dvořák some of the themes that would become Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9: From the New World.
To support himself while at Conservatory, Burleigh became the baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City. The presence of a black man in the choir initially caused dissension, but it died down when J. Pierpont Morgan, a member of the parish, took a clear stand on the matter. Even after gaining other employment and becoming a successful composer, Burleigh continued to sing in the choir at St. George’s for many years and became a beloved part of the congregation.
Burleigh composed original music, mostly for voice, and was a well-respected arranger and music editor in New York. His art songs were musical settings of the poetry of such great African American poets as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, among others.
His greatest achievement, and that for which he will always be celebrated, was recovering and arranging many Negro spirituals for solo voice and piano so that they could be widely heard on the concert stage. Various choral versions of the spirituals had been well known in the black churches, but it was Burleigh’s arrangements that made this distinctively American music available to the masses.
Burleigh died on September 12, 1949.
God, our strong deliverer: We bless your Name for the grace given to Harry Thacker Burleigh, who lifted up in song the struggles of your people. Let that Spirit of love which spurred him draw us and your whole Church to raise our distinct voices into one great harmony of praise; through the same Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Hagiography from A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Church Publishing.)