BURLEIGH Henry Thacker, I’ve been in the storm & Oh Lord, what a morning

Henry (Harry) Burleigh was born in Pennsylvania in 1866 – his grandfather had been emancipated from slavery in the 1830s and his father fought for the Union Navy during the American Civil War. As a child, Burleigh’s grandfather taught him the melodies that were commonly sung by enslaved African-Americans. In his teenage years he developed into a fine classical singer, making regular solo appearances at churches and synagogues.

At the age of 26 he moved to New York to study at the National Conservatory of Music, which coincided with the arrival of the Conservatory’s new director, Antonín Dvořák, who’d been brought to America with the specific role of laying the foundations of an authentic national musical style. Dvořák was thrilled by Burleigh’s voice, and there’s some evidence to suggest that it was Burleigh who introduced certain melodies to Dvořák which would find their way into the ‘New World’ Symphony and ‘American’ String Quartet.

Burleigh’s long career was centred around performing and publishing his arrangements, helping to popularise Swing Low, Deep River and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. He died at the age of 82 and his body is interred in Erie, the town where he was born and which celebrates his music and wider legacy with a week-long annual festival.

© Tom McKinney


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