The Invisibility and Fame of Harry T. Burleigh: Retrospect and Prospect
Floyd, Samuel A., Jr., Black Music Research Journal
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.
In 2001, the long-awaited second edition of the august New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians resoundingly finished breaking one of the mainstream barriers to black music scholarship, as its numerous and wide-ranging black music entries far surpassed what could be found in the previous edition. It has become undeniably and powerfully clear that the rubric "black music" embraces much more than "just jazz and a few spirituals." In addition to an unprecedented increase in the number of journal articles and book-length studies on black music, significant reference works have been produced, including Southern's Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (1982); Southern and Josephine Wright's African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance (1990); Eddie Meadows's Jazz Research and Performance Materials, now in its second edition (1995); and the International Dictionary of Black Composers (1999, which does contain a lengthy entry on Burleigh). In addition, specialized scholarly editions of music continue to appear, for example, Paul Machlin's Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller: Performances in Transcription, 1927-1943 (2001), published as volume 10 in the Music of the United States of America series (which would do well to embrace a volume on Burleigh).
Nevertheless, the value of much of the black music oeuvre is still overlooked, ignored, and, in some quarters, questioned, although more quietly than before, and sometimes tacitly. In fact, Burleigh himself has remained virtually invisible to most students of American music, with the exception of those assembled at the 2003 conference and, now, a growing number of others. The Burleigh conference laid the groundwork for establishing Burleigh as a central figure in American music and, more broadly, making black musical achievement ever more "visible." The insights revealed at the conference shed light on Burleigh's legacy and showed promise for more work on his career and his importance as a genuinely significant historical figure. To date, four doctoral dissertations have been written about Burleigh, two books--Anne Simpson's biography (1990) and Jean Snyder's forthcoming biographical study. Also pertinent to Burleigh study are several recent CDs of his music. (3) All this work, together with a few smaller publications, contributes to a stream of information that will be used, inevitably, for the study of the work and works of Harry T. Burleigh, and which, I believe, will be worked into the mainstream of American musical scholarship.
To understand Burleigh and his influence, the place to start is the National Conservatory of Music, where, during the period 1892-1895, Burleigh was a student of the composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), who had been invited to the United States from his native Prague to direct the newly formed institution. In America, Dvorak learned more than he may already have known about American …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Invisibility and Fame of Harry T. Burleigh: Retrospect and Prospect. Contributors: Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. - Author. Journal title: Black Music Research Journal. Volume: 24. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2004. Page number: 179+. © 2008 Center For Black Music Research. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.