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Pioneers of African American Music History – Part 1

Harry Burleigh was the father of negro spirituals.  He is the earliest known composer of African American religious music.  Much of his music is widely known.  During his career he achieved national and international success as a composer, arranger and a performing artist.


Harry Burleigh was born on December 2, 1866.  Burleigh learned to love music through his grandfather. His grandfather taught him old slave songs.  His inspiration for composing Negro spirituals were rooted in old slave songs he learned growing up.  At a early age he was exposed to many prominent performers.  After high school he continued to develop his musical abilities.  Burleigh was a baritone soloist for St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City from 1894 to 1946. Once a year he would give annual concerts.  In 1900 he preformed as a soloist for Temple Emanuel  and remained there for twenty five years.


While working at St. George’s Episcopal Church he met Czech composer Antonin Dvorak who became a great influence in his life. They collaborated on two occasions.  Burleigh shared with Dvorak songs passed down to him by his grandfather.  Dvorak used the songs as the basis of his symphony,songs like the  New World,  The other was Old Folks at Home in which Burleigh sang in.


Burleigh graduated in 1896 from the National Conservatory of Music and served on the faculty for several years.  He also received an honorary degrees from Atlanta and  Howard university.   Some of Burleigh’s early songs were published by G. Schirmer. It is a little known black history fact that he became the first African-American soloist from the prosperous New York synagogue,Temple Emanuel.  It is uncertain how many songs Burleigh wrote. Burleigh lectured at many black colleges throughout the nation.  Burleigh wrote somewhere between 200 and 300 spiritual arrangements.  One of his most well known songs is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  He published a major series of music called, Negro Spirituals, where he describes the origins of this music.  Burleigh retired in 1946 due to illness.  He died at the ripe old age of 82.