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Harry Thacker Burleigh, (1866-1949)

~ Harry Thacker Burleigh, composer, pianist, and singer, received the 3rd NAACP Spingarn Medal for his achievements in creative music on this date in 1917.

~ He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals.

~ He was an accomplished baritone, a meticulous editor, and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).

~ In 1892, at the age of twenty-six, Burleigh received a scholarship (with some intervention in his behalf from Mrs. Frances MacDowell, mother of famed American composer Edward MacDowell) to the National Conservatory of Music in New York.

~ In 1898, he married poet Louise Alston

~ After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his maternal grandfather for Dvorák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his own compositions. In turn, Dvorák’s use of the spirituals “Goin’ Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) was probably influenced by his sessions with Burleigh. In addition, Burleigh served as copyist for Dvorák, a task that prepared him for his future responsibilities as a music editor.

~ In 1900, Burleigh was the first African-American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue, and by 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi

~ Burleigh died at age 82 on 12 September 1949. Over 2,000 mourners attended the funeral of the man who had successfully combined the melodies of his own heritage with those of serious art music. Burleigh’s compositions and arrangements of African-American spirituals transported the music of the “colored folk” from their plantation and minstrel settings onto the concert stage, where they have been enjoyed and appreciated by people of all races.