Burleigh's work in preserving the slaves' songs and making
them known to the finest musicians, as well as to the public, is more
important than is generally realized. Today we take for granted our
possession of these musical gems. "Composed by no one in particular and by everyone in general," and until after the Civil War never put down on paper, the Negro folk songs are part of the American heritage. Forty years ago, however, only a few of them were known in the North. Indeed, near the turn of the century, northern Negroes of some education had come to be almost ashamed of the credulous and illiterate old songs.
Burleigh commented on his motivation for setting spirituals,
. . . In Negro spirituals my race has pure gold, and they should be
taken as the Negro's contribution to artistic possessions. In them we
show a spiritual security as old as the ages. . . . These songs always
denote a personal relationship. It is 'my Saviour,' 'my sorrow,' 'my
kingdom.' The personal note is ever present. America's only original and distinctive style of music is destined to be appreciated more and more."
"Deep River," and other spiritual settings became very popular to
concert performers and recording artists, both black and white. It was
soon normal for recitals to end with a group of spirituals. Musicians
such as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson made these songs a part of their repertoires.
There are various estimates of the number of songs Burleigh wrote. The numbers range from 200 to 300. They include settings used in musicologist 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.
The revenues from publication of Burleigh's works helped pay for his extensive travels, including several trips to Europe, and his studies of languages. 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 for his contributions as a vocalist and composer.
In 1944, members of St. George's recognized his many years of
service as soloist 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, and he did a special performance of the work, broadcast over a local radio station, for New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Illness forced Burleigh to retire as soloist at in 1946. His son,
Alston, and daughter-in-law placed him in a Long Island rest home a few months later. Then, concerned about his father's health care, Alston Burleigh moved his father to a nursing home in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1948.
On September 12, 1949, Harry Burleigh died of heart failure at the age of 82. His funeral was held at St. George's and was attended by 2,000 mourners. Some of his choral and solo settings were sung during the service, and the pall bearers included composers Hall Johnson, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, William C. Handy, and Cameron White.
Simpson commented that,
The "dapper little man with the white mustache" had indeed laid down
his burden. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson in White Plains, New York. . . . A few weeks later another tribute was paid Burleigh in the St. George's Bulletin, October 2, which read in part: "He seemed aware of deeper tones of brotherhood and throbbing harmonies of humanity which others did not hear." 6
1 Anne Key Simpson, Hard Trials: the Life and Music of Harry
T. Burleigh (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1990), 153.
2 A. Walter Kramer, "H.T. Burleigh: Composer by Divine Right
and 'The American Coleridge-Taylor,'" Musical America, 29 April
3 Lester A. Walton, "Harry T. Burleigh Honored To-day at St.
George's," The Black Perspective in Music 2 (Spring 1984): 81.
(Reprinted from the clippings file at the Schomberg Library (New York),
March 30, 1924).
4 Antonin Dvořák, "Music in America," Harper's 90
5 Grace Overmyer, Famous American Composers (New
York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1945), 135.
6 Walton, 83.
Musical excerpt "Go Down Moses" by H. T. Burleigh, performed by the composer in 1919, from Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, companion CD to the book Lost Sounds by Tim Brooks. Archeophone Records, 2005.
"Deep River" cover digitally reproduced by the Duke
University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.