Henry Burleigh

Henry Burleigh

1866 - 1949

African-American composer, arranger, and performer Henry Thacker Burleigh was one of those late 19th-century musicians who heeded Antonin Dvořák's challenge to go forth and create a national school of music. In so doing, he became America's first prominent black composer.

Photo: Harry Thacker Burleigh, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, 1927, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cph 3c14982


Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on December 2, 1866, to free-born parents, Burleigh learned plantation melodies from his maternal grandfather, who had been a slave. Working to supplement the family's income, the young Burleigh used his rich baritone to garner a number of singing jobs in local churches before winning a scholarship in 1892 to the National Conservatory of Music in New York, which was then headed by Dvořák.

At the Conservatory, Burleigh sang for the Czech master the spirituals and minstrel songs of the mid-19th century. So moved by his renditions was Dvořák that he urged the young African American to assemble and set down the folk tradition of his slave ancestors. As an editor at Ricordi, Burleigh began to publish these spirituals in 1911. In his 1916 collection, Jubilee Songs of the United States, he arranged the African-American melodies for piano and voice. It became the standard recital fare for the great singers of the day, as well as repertoire for vocal ensembles such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Singers. It includes Burleigh's well-known arrangement of the spiritual "Deep River." The success of these arrangements created a positive climate for Burleigh's original songs and other choral and chamber compositions--over 200 works in all--including a setting of Walt Whitman's "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915).

In addition to composing and editing, Burleigh retained the post of baritone soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church in New York from 1894 to 1946; was the first African American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue; won acclaim as a recitalist who sometimes accompanied himself on the piano; toured Europe; and gave command performances for royalty. Active until 1946, when he retired to a nursing home in Connecticut, Burleigh died on September 12, 1949 in Stamford, Connecticut.

Burleigh was a beloved and respected artist, and his career and compositions did a great deal to break down color barriers and further the understanding of and appreciation for the role African-American music has played in the larger history of American music. His arrangements brought the spirituals and "sorrow songs" (as W.E.B. Du Bois called them) out of their earlier home, plantation, and minstrel settings and onto the classical concert stage, where they were performed by black and white singers alike. His own songs enriched the repertoire with a deep sensitivity to text and emotion, as well as a singer's sense of the dramatic, while his career as a performer did a great deal to pave the way for artists like Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson.

--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Songs & Song Collections BY Burleigh (entered to date)

Audio PLaylist


CD / DVD / MP3