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More Than Music: Harry Burleigh turned spirituals into concert songs

A painted portrait of composer Harry Thacker Burleigh by artist Laura Wheeler Waring, 1946.
A painted portrait of composer Harry Thacker Burleigh by artist Laura Wheeler Waring, 1946.

It’s time for our series, “More Than Music,” to explore the remarkable life of Black composer, arranger, and singer Harry T. Burleigh.

His grandfather was born a slave in 1835 who eventually bought his freedom for $55. He moved his family to Erie, Pennsylvania, where young Harry was born just one year after the end of the Civil War.

Burleigh inherited both his grandfather’s baritone voice as well as his deep knowledge of the Negro-Spiritual traditions.

More Than Music host Joseph Horowitz says Burleigh played a significant role in the development of American music. Burleigh has been credited as the composer most responsible for turning spirituals into concert songs.

As a young man his musical gifts led him to New York. It was there he met and worked with the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.

Eventually, Burleigh would go on to be a renowned singer in New York City, landing the position of soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church over the objections of most of the all-white congregation.

NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, and throughout his long life, a champion of Black music and musicians.

More Than Music is scripted by Joe Horowitz. Sound design and production by Peter Bogdanoff.  Joe Horowitz is the author of Joe Horowitz is the author of “The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War.” More than Music is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the HumanitiesEarlier ‘More Than Music’ programs can be found hereherehere, and here.

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Rupert Allman