The Invisibility and Fame of Harry T. Burleigh: Retrospect and Prospect

Article excerpt

April 2, 2003, saw the opening of a three-day conference, The Heritage and Legacy of Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), designed to address and celebrate the contributions of this singer, composer, vocal coach, pianist, teacher, editor, and producer. (1) The presenters explored issues ranging from who influenced Burleigh's career to whom he influenced; from his musical prowess to his work as a composer; from his arranging to his singing; from his songs to his choral works; from his spirituals to his popular and concert music. This occasion was the first to address comprehensively so many aspects of this individual's career and to provide interpretations that reach beneath the surface of previous writings to support his status as a key figure in the history of American music; for over the decades, discussions of his contributions to American music have been virtually absent in the tomes that document and extol that history.

There are acceptable reasons for this silence, including the fact that until recently there have existed serious gaps in our knowledge about African-American music and musicians and a dearth of the kind of information that would reveal Burleigh as even semisignificant in the history of American music. In fact, in the large majority of cases, Burleigh's name does not appear unless Antonin Dvorak's does, not even in most black-oriented, black-authored, and black-produced publications. When his name is mentioned without Dvorak's, the context in which it appears carries the implication that Burleigh must have been a great singer since he was a featured soloist at a white church--St. George's Episcopal Church in New York--for fifty years, from 1894 to 1946. (2) Not even in my edited Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance (Floyd 1990) was Burleigh given more than a modicum of space, scattered throughout the volume. In order to place my observations in context, I will divert for a moment.

The late musicologist Eileen Southern has told of colleagues at NYU questioning her decision to write a book about black music, one asking, "What is there to learn about black music? There's nothing there--just jazz and spirituals. How could you possibly find enough material to make a course?" (Wright 1992, 6). Well, she certainly proved his assumption to be wrong, producing a massive musicological tome about black music and black music making that ranges chronologically from pre-nineteenth-century American slave music to contemporary European-derived and American-based concert music, The Music of Black Americans. Since that landmark work first appeared, in 1971, an abundance of information has been revealed in scholarly journals, including her own trailblazing journal The Black Perspective in Music, Jon Michael Spencer's Journal of Black Sacred Music, and my own Black Music Research Journal, and in research tools and monographs on black music. A second edition of Southern's book was published in 1983, and a third in 1997. Each new edition contained much more information than in its previous incarnation and reflected an enlarged perspective, advanced by Southern's observation and study of developments that had taken place in the intervening years. Nevertheless, in the subsequent editions Burleigh remained underexposed, receiving only seven passing mentions in 1983 and seven in 1997; nor is he given much space in the second edition of Southern's edited Readings in Black American Music (1983), in which the authors of the book's essays gave him but five passing mentions. In The Power of Black Music (Floyd 1995), my treatment of him was not much better, for while I identified him there as a "highly significant figure," my four passing mentions are now an embarrassment. A powerful exception to such omission is Reid Badger's biography of James Reese Europe, A Life in Ragtime (1995), which gives significant attention to Burleigh. All in all, however, while progress in the recognition of black music and musicians has been steadily consistent, Burleigh has been virtually disregarded. …