Harry Burleigh’s “Deep River” of Common Humanity on NPR

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If you’ve ever heard Marian Anderson sing “Deep River, you’ve heard an immortal concert spiritual by Harry Burleigh. His name won’t appear on the youtube captions – and yet Burleigh’s “Deep River” isn’t a mere arrangement. 

I unpack the genesis of “Deep River” – its surprising origins as an obscure “church militant” spiritual, its indebtedness to Antonin Dvorak, its subsidiary theme composed by Burleigh himself – on the most recent “More than Music” feature on NPR: ’Deep River’: The Art of Harry Burleigh.” The performances (other than Marian Anderson’s) were recorded in concert by the exceptional African-American baritone Sidney Outlaw. It was my pleasure to be the pianist.

The show argues that Burleigh was a major creative force – more than the pivotal transcriber of spirituals as concert songs. In particular, we present his final art song – “Lovely, Dark, and Lonely One”(1935) – as his valedictory: not merely one of the supreme concert songs by an American, but an encapsulation of Burleigh’s life philosophy. It takes an eloquently impatient Langston Hughes poem, and turns it into an expression of hope and faith. “Burleigh consistently refused to participate in movements he considered separatist or chauvinistic,” writes Jean Snyder in her Burleigh biography. He believed that artists, not politicians, would most effect progressive change. “They are the true physicians who heal the ills of mankind,” he wrote. “They are the trailblazers. They find new worlds.” Our performance of this song, at Princeton University last year, is a little slower than other versions; its interior life (the climax is a pregnant silence) felt deep and true.

Burleigh’s own life story is a parable of faith: his patience was rewarded. As I remark on NPR: “When Harry Burleigh arrived in New York, its leading classical music institutions were segregated. Eight years later, in 1900, a ‘race riot’ erupted in the Tenderloin District. But New York was at the same time a city of opportunity for Harry Burleigh. And the opportunities did not merely arise in spite of his skin color; sometimes, they materialized because – dignified and composed — he was self-evidently a young Black American unusual in talent, character, and promise.” 

In New York, Antonin Dvorak made 26-year-old Harry Burleigh his assistant.  Jeannette Thurber, the visionary music educator who invited Dvorak to lead her National Conservatory, was part of a community of cultural leaders who – like Dvorak and W. E. B. Du Bois — looked to Black America for direction. Not long after Dvorak arrived, she added a department “for the instruction of colored pupils of merit” with free tuition. The conservatory soon acquired 150 Black students – out of a student body totaling 750. Meanwhile, Henry Krehbiel, the most influential New York music critic, turned himself into what would later be called an ethnomusicologist, studying vernacular music from all over the world – including the music of Native America, and of Africa. In the New York Tribune, Krehbiel wrote: “That which is most characteristic, most beautiful and most vital in our folk-song has come from the negro slaves of the South.” Krehbiel and Burleigh would become friends and allies.

When we observe that, beginning with “Deep River” in 1913, Burleigh’s spirituals were  instantaneously popular among vocal recitalists – that means they were being sung by famous white recitalists. But over the course of the 1920s, Burleigh himself became an immensely popular black recitalist.

In the long view, Burleigh commences a high lineage of Black vocalists whose renderings of the songs of Black America are buoyed by a courageous optimism. His first two great successors, both of whom he knew and admired, were Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. Closing the NPR show, I ask: “Is Burleigh’s ‘deep river’ of common humanity a thing of the past? Let’s hope not. Here’s a Dutch student chorus singing Harry Burleigh.”


Performances by Sidney Outlaw and JH recorded in concert at the Newark School of the Arts (with thanks to Larry Tamburri), and at Princeton University (presented by the James Madison Program, with thanks to Allen Guelzo):

6:00: “Deep River”

10:10: “Sometimes I Feel like a Lonely Child”

22:45: “Lovely, Dark, and Lonely One”

25:31: “Steal Away” —

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