The story of Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) is one linked to that of Antonin Dvorak.
Burleigh received his first musical training from his mother. As a youth, he was given a job as a doorman at the musical evenings hosted by his mother’s employer, exposing him to leading Italian opera singers of the day. At twenty-six, through the support of Frances MacDowell (mother of composer Edward MacDowell), Burleigh received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York where he studied with Rubin Goldmark and others.
Most significantly, his time at the Conservatory coincided with Antonin Dvorak’s time as Director (this was the job for which Dvorak had agreed to come to America). Besides serving as a copyist for Dvorak, Burleigh spent hours recalling and performing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his maternal grandfather for the Czech composer. He was encouraged by Dvorak to preserve these melodies in his own compositions, as Dvorak, the consummate musical nationalist, felt that here lay the treasures of America’s national musical identity that should be promoted and developed. 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") is often said to be directly a result of his sessions with Burleigh.
In 1894, Burleigh applied for and was given for the post of soloist at St. George's Episcopal Church of New York over the (racist) objections of the congregation. Through his 50 year association with the church, he only missed one performance and won the hearts and the respect of the entire church community.
Following a string of publishing successes with Schirmer, by 1900 Burleigh was the first African-American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El in New York and by 1911 he was working as an editor for G. Riccordi. He eventually composed over two hundred works in the genre of concert song. The widespread success of his setting of Deep River(1917) for which he is most well known, inspired the publication of nearly a dozen more spirituals the same year. As his spiritual arrangements become increasingly popular with concert soloists, a tradition of concluding concerts with a set of spirituals was established.
His instrumental output includes the unpublished Six Plantation Melodies for violin and piano (1901), From the Southland for piano (1910), and Southland Sketches for violin and piano (1916). He was a charter member of the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP)