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Stories & Myths: Harry T. Burleigh and the Birth of American Music

Grandson of a slave, Harry T. Burleigh rose from poverty to international stardom as a baritone soloist, songwriter, and music editor. But he is known for his artistic arrangements of the Negro Spirituals and for making them known to the world. Learn more on Stories & Myths

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More books by Craig von Buseck


good evening good afternoon good morning wherever you are tuning in around the world we are so glad that you are with us for another edition of stories and myths and i am here with the champion uh who just won in the ring right isn't that what they do when they win in the ring actually i don't know anyway john c farrell and how are you this evening john c farrell i am doing well i'm doing wonderfully i got an actually new chair here so i'm sitting comfortable so oh that's not as sweet it's not as squeaky as my last chair so that's good how are you doing i am doing well you and i had the privilege on what day was it tuesday right wednesday night uh to do what what did we do that was a privileged uh event we got we're fortunate enough and to go see a pre-screening of jennifer hudson's aretha franklin biopic biopic called respect which was um i i thought was extremely well done um i had very very little complaints about it it was it was superb the acting was great the music of course it's a wreath it's the queen of soul um five stars all around for me and your only complaint was my only complaint was it was really long but she had i didn't realize all the turmoil and all the struggles that she had and with the internal demons that she had i was i i was um unaware of that so it was um it was an interesting looking at her life and it was very very well done and kudos to jennifer hudson and to marlon wayanson to forest whitaker and everyone else who um who played a part i thought it was well done on all accounts and jennifer hudson was hand picked by aretha franklin to play the role i did not know that that's awesome she saw you know aretha saw jennifer in dream girls and said that girl that girl is the one to play me in the movie well there there's many times throughout the movie where you forget you forget that you're actually watching jennifer hudson and not the queen herself because she does such an unbelievable unbelievably good job at portraying aretha franklin and i can't say enough about it it was very well done well i agree and uh i will be writing the review this time normally john c farrell is the one who writes most of the reviews on where he and i work together at our day job but this time john has been gracious or actually his plate is so full that he allowed a a morsel to fall down so that we the puppies at the foot could have one of those morsels so i'm excited about that i will be writing the review it will be coming out next tuesday on absolutely and i'm interested i'm excited to read it to kind of see your your internal thoughts on it because i know you haven't told me everything that you i i know that you liked it and everything but to to see what what you put down on paper i'm excited to read and look forward to that well this is the story of uh several generations of an african-american family who made an impact on the world through uh their music and their church ministry and uh that is really interesting because that's what we're going to talk about tonight another multi-generation of african americans who made a tremendous impact on the world through their music and through their ministry and that is the story of my book nobody knows the harry t burley story and so we want to talk tonight about this man harry t burley and some people will say well who is that i i don't know who that is well that's why we chose the name nobody knows it was a dual reason one reason was that it was about uh someone that not a lot of people know about but who has had a tremendous impact on not only american society but on the world and then also of course this this wonderful spiritual nobody knows go ahead john you want to you want to hum a few bars of nobody knows do i know that no no oh what movie is that from the trouble there's a lady that sings it in a movie um there's lots of people who sing it in movies probably best known is uh the bird in lion king remember that yeah but that's not what i'm thinking could be a phone call no um nobody knows well it's it's all right it'll come to you yeah it will co watch it'll come to me in the middle of one of your answers and when i speak up to say say it i'll forget it so all right you might want to have a piece of paper to write these things down to capture them right so so what do we got first so well first like like first of all as as you said nobody knows um we're talking about aretha franklin i and i've knew very little about her i did know a little bit about her but this guy harry t burley i know even less about so um your book's called nobody knows and so um outside of the obvious of nobody knows who harry t burley is why did you use that title i find it an intriguing title well i just kind of told you uh i'll say it again in any more reason yeah and i'll give you some details on why i chose the subject as well okay so um nobody knows is one of the great negro spirituals and nobody knows who wrote any of the spirituals that was something that i didn't realize going into this project i started working on this project in the late 1990s a friend of our family did a one-man show about harry t burley and i was blown away at the time i was at regent university studying journalism and divinity and i needed to do my master's thesis and when i saw this one act show or one-man show about harry burley i said that is a story that i would love to sink my teeth into and so i started doing research on burley and you know like i said i thought that burley or other people wrote the spirituals but the spirituals were spontaneous songs that came from we believe we don't know this for sure but what has been passed down orally is that the spirituals came from religious services so the slaves would either gather amongst themselves at a plantation or several different slaves from different plantations would go into the woods and they would have religious services where they cried out to god and the american slaves identified with the slaves of egypt the jewish slaves in egypt the children of israel and so they were crying out for a moses to be a deliverer and they were crying out for god to set them free from their chains and so in these spirituals there are a lot of biblical references a lot of biblical more uh metaphors and allegory that are in these story songs so they were a cry of prayer but there were also spirituals that were um songs that were there just to keep uh their spirits up and so there were work songs and so you would hear them hit these rhythmic type of songs as they were working to help them keep going with this terribly tedious toil that they were forced to endure then there were other songs that were songs with messages in them so for example when a s when a slave was trying to escape they would go to um the water because the bloodhounds couldn't smell the scent in the water and that's where the song weighed in the water wade in the water wade in the water children so that was a clue so you can see that i can't sing so you're you're doing a good job well thank you to do that then another one uh there were songs where they would give messages uh so for example there's one called follow the drinking gourd follow the drinking gourd well what is the drinking gourd it's the big dipper and where does the big dipper point to the north star so it was a message that if you want to make it to freedom you follow the drinking gourd to the north star uh here here's a a note from marlene banks yes and sometimes the spirituals were sung as code for people on the underground railroad just like uh we're pointing out and she uh she writes love that book nobody knows thank you marlene and when the book first came out marlene was very kind to do an interview with me uh on uh nobody knows for her uh podcast or her uh website so that was very very nice of her so this is uh what attracted me to the burley story but then as i dug into it i realized that i was on to true american gold as far as history and culture is concerned so for example um my father is a portrait painter he passed away a year ago but he was a portrait painter and so anytime we were near a portrait gallery he would want to go and visit and so we were in washington dc together uh for a promise keepers rally and um it was a very hot day and he said you know let's go get a drink of water so we went to get a drink of water and then he said you know uh to cool off maybe we should walk over to the smithsonian portrait gallery and i was like oh yeah to cool to cool off i understand yeah so we took a little break and we walked over there and i mean it was amazing to walk through the portrait gallery but we didn't know what you know special features were there and as we're walking through we saw a sign that said great african american leaders with an arrow pointing into this room and so we went in there and there were portraits of martin luther king jr w.e.b du bois and uh on and on and right next to george washington carver there was a portrait of harry t burley great african-american leaders according to the smithsonian right and i turned to my dad because i was working on the thesis which was the research behind what became this book and i said well dad if if harry burley is good enough for the smithsonian i think i'm on the right track and so that's how it all began awesome well i did find i did think of the movie that i was that i was trying to think of where nobody knows is from it's sung by a character by the name of princess vespa do you know what the movie that's from or she said no i can't think of it princess vespa the star wars move spaceballs when she's present when she's in prison she's singing nobody knows okay i now i remember yes right and so when you said nobody knows and started singing i was like i know that for someone so so harry burley loved music from the time he was a little boy and there are two stories from his childhood that demonstrate that love i was wondering if you could share us with the share with us those stories well both of these stories are in the book nobody knows and the first is that harry's grandfather was a man named uh hamilton waters and he was a slave on the eastern shore of maryland not too far from annapolis and um someone had given him a a reader which helped people to teach themselves how to read which was illegal in most plantations in the south they wanted to keep the slaves ignorant so that they could keep them powerless because we all know knowledge is power and power and knowledge comes from reading and so um when when hamilton was caught with this speller uh his foreman beat him with 70 lashes uh they gathered all the slaves from the plantation to watch this uh to make an example of hamilton and the whip hit him in the eyes and so it caused partial blindness for him so uh at that point he was not of much use to the master and so the master allowed him to go into town after he was done doing his daily chores and to work among the village for whoever would hire him sweeping floors or shoveling snow or whatever and he was able to raise the money to buy his freedom and he also purchased his mother's freedom his mother's name was lovey waters and so hamilton purchased their freedom while he was in town he fell in love with one of the local girls who was a scotch indian young lady named lucinda and they fell in love and so when she found out hamilton was wanting to go north she had grown up in the north up in new york uh as a matter of fact and she had actually worked for a time in the governor's mansion in albany new york as a servant and so she wanted to go back north because she wanted to see her parents who had moved to michigan and so they all moved north and somewhere along the way uh they got married uh quite often they would just find an itinerant preacher who was going through town and they would have a quick service and that was it and so um at one point lucinda got pregnant with harry burley's mother and so they stopped in my hometown of erie pennsylvania which is how i know the story of harry t burley um and they really liked it but she wanted lucinda wanted to go to michigan to have the baby where her mother was so they made their way up to michigan and they had the baby and they looked around and for some reason we don't know for sure but they decided not to stay in michigan they decided also not to go into canada it could have been because michigan was on the line between kentucky and ohio then michigan then up into canada and a lot of slaves would who would run away from the south would cross the ohio river and make their way up into michigan around detroit and cross over into canada for freedom and so the slave hunters were watching those routes very carefully and that could have been why they didn't feel comfortable being in that area that's what i speculated and put in the book but we don't know for sure and so they made their way back to erie pennsylvania where hamilton got a job uh dying clothes and laundering and doing that kind of thing as time went on he got involved in the underground railroad which had a station in erie where slaves would come up and they would either cross the lake at erie or they would go up the shore to buffalo and cross at niagara into canada and and hamilton actually helped some slaves escape and that story is in the book as well but when hamilton got older he got a job lighting the gas lamps in downtown erie and these were on the pole and they had a little key you turn the key the gas would start and then you had to light the lamp and then early the next morning they had to go out and turn all the lamps out and that was his job well as he got older his eyesight got worse and worse and so he would take either harry or harry's brother reginald sometimes he'd take both of them and they would go out and help him to light the lamps and so as they were lighting the lamps hamilton would teach them the spirituals the plantation songs and some of the other folk music that he had learned and so from a very early age 789 harry got music deep down into his soul well harry also had an amazing voice and so very early he started singing um and even making money in his later teen years uh doing funerals and weddings and bar mitzvahs and any job that he could get and so that was one story uh the other story is that uh harry's mother um was able to get a job at the mansion of the uh one of the bankers in erie and it was the russell mansion and the cool thing is is the russell mansion is still there in erie and uh you can actually go right up to it it's now a restaurant or something and at any rate uh so his mother elizabeth um she got a job you know working as a servant because the railroad that went from new york city to chicago goes right through erie and so what would happen then and it still happens today is that musicians going from new york to chicago would stop along the way at places like rochester buffalo erie cleveland and on up to chicago and so they would go to the russell mansion and they would play for the wealthy patrons that were invited by mrs russell and elizabeth would be one of the servants in the house well one day the great pianist josephi was playing at the house and burley wanted so badly to see to see josephi play but his mother said no you're you're not allowed to do this and burly was about 10 years old at the time 9 or 10 somewhere in there and and so he knew he couldn't go inside so instead he went around to the side of the house it was freezing cold the snow was up to his waist and he stood there in the snow with snow dropping down into his boots and he watched this concert from the inside uh the problem was that he was out there so long freezing and shivering that he caught uh pneumonia and he almost died and his mother stayed with him and nursed him back to health with the help of the doctor and it took him a while to come back to health and elizabeth told mrs russell what had happened and mrs russell was so moved that harry wanted to hear the musicians that she said we must make a job for him so that he can come in he can work the job but then he can also hear the musicians and so for the next 10 years uh almost for many years at least harry uh was the doorman and he would greet people who came and he'd open the door for them and then when his jobs were were done whatever other jobs they had him do he would be able to go inside and listen to the greatest musicians of the day and that planted a seed within him that made him desire to become a musician himself now he was a great baritone soloist he knew music very well he was a very good pianist but he was an african-american in the at the height of jim crow racism in america and he tried for many years to get a position working full-time he was finally able to travel with a minstrel group and these groups would sing the spirituals as they went from town to town um but they starved they hardly made any money and after a year of literally starving he finally gave up and said well i guess i'll never be a musician so he learned how to be a stenographer and he got a job working for a piano company as the stenographer you know they didn't have xerox machines back then they would copy everything by a stenographer so that was burley's job but at least he could be close to the music and the owner of the piano company allowed him to stay afterwards and to practice and so that's what he did just to keep going with it until one fateful day and we'll tell about that in a moment uh as you were talking going back to hamilton waters as you were doing research for the book you um you came across his hamilton's obituary at the eerie historical society so how did you use that obituary that you found in your book well it was only about two or three probably three inches long one column and so it wasn't that long but it you know i had to wear the uh cloth gloves because it was a newspaper from the 1870s wow and so you have to be very careful with with them and so i'm looking through these through all the burly papers at the erie county historical society and i came across this and i was like oh my goodness this is so amazing and i'm paraphrasing but basically it had his last words in that little obituary and it basically said um there's a ship coming for to get me and it's going to come soon so i've got my trunk packed and ready because i sensed the ship coming around the curve imagine that was his la those were hamilton's last words and so obviously i was not there when hamilton died obviously honestly no one knows what was said and um all i could do is nobody knows and all i could do was build a death scene uh based on this one little obituary and that's what i did so um you know nobody knows while it's based on a true story and it's as real as i know it can be there are scenes where i had to create dialogue where i had to create scenes and so it is historical fiction but it's also narrative non-fiction it walks the fence between those two genres and so um that was used in in hamilton's death scene with harry there uh with him when he died and then it is reused in harry's death scene which i will read at the end of our time together oh wow i did not know that treat i'm excited about that so um if you could you tell me tell us the story of how harry was able to become a student at the new york conservatory well that is where i left off with the story of him playing the piano one day he was working at the piano company and elizabeth his mother came bounding through the door uh and it scared harry at first because he thought something bad has happened and uh he went and she took him over to the corner of the of the building and she uh had a magazine with her and she said harry i've got some very good news and she opened it up to the classifieds and this this was a musical magazine that she got at mrs russell's house because mrs russell was a big patron of music so she'd get all these musical magazines and then she'd let the servants read them when she was done and so she was reading this uh magazine and um there was an ad talking about uh a a possible uh scholarship at the national conservatory of music in new york city and she said this could be your opportunity harry and harry said i have no money how could i get to new york city i i don't know how i could do it she said i don't know how you're going to do it but god knows how you're going to do it and we'll find a way and so the erie community all start and i actually saw in the historical records the records of people who gave and contributed donations and the local bank set up a fund where people could go into the bank and make donations for harry t burley's trip to new york to do the scholarship which i think is just a wonderful thing marlene writes uh faction she said here fiction mixed with historical facts and that's that's it although i tried to make it as much historical facts as i could and then i filled in the the fiction where i needed the dialogue to tell a narrative because it's a narrative book it's not a biography like victor victor is an actual biography this is a historical fiction narrative nonfiction biography so it's kind of a blend so anyway they wrote raised this money and harry was able to borrow a suit and he packed his bags and got on a train and went to new york city and it was terribly hot the day that he auditioned uh now the national conservatory of music was the forerunner to what we now know as juilliard uh it had gone through its life and death and then juilliard raised up not long after the conservatory closed but it the conservatory kind of paved the way for juilliard and so uh you know some of the greatest musicians of the time went through the national conservatory and were trained there and the whole idea was at that time a lot of people traveled to europe for their training and then came back to america and a lot of people thought that america by this point is now 100 plus years old it should have its own universities and its own conservatories and it should start developing its own music and so uh burley uh had his opportunity to do an audition but the problem was the collar was too tight and it was so hot that he was parched and he was so nervous that he kind of botched the audition oh wow and he knew it he knew that he didn't he didn't get it and on that level you have to be perfect to get a nod to get a scholarship and he was not perfect well before he left erie his mother gave him a letter of recommendation from none other than mrs russell because mrs russell knew the registrar mrs mcdowell of the national conservatory and she said make sure harry gives this letter to mrs mcdowell because mrs mcdowell used to travel with the different musicians and stop at mrs russell's house with those musicians right right so there was a connection here well burly so was so flustered that he left without giving the letter to mrs mcdowell but before he left she said you have to come back tomorrow at 10 or whatever time to get your score and burly's like i'll be back but he knew he didn't make it and so he went out and he just wept and he thought about joining a minstrel company you know back then it was the blackface which was very derogatory uh it was the worst stereotypes of african-americans uh making fun of them making them out to be uh very negative caricatures of themselves uh very derogatory and so his mother had told him harry no matter what happens don't go to the minstrels but now he thought he was not going to get the scholarship and the only way he could break into music was to put on the blackface and be in a minstrel show and so he very seriously thought about doing it so the next morning he got up and was getting ready he was at a hotel and he was getting ready to go back to get his score and he was depressed and it was blazing hot again this time he didn't wear that tight suit he he just went in a comfortable outfit but as he was walking out of his hotel he noticed the letter that he had forgotten the day before and he thought well i don't know what it says but i need to deliver this because i said i would and so he took the letter in and mrs mcdowell greeted him and said well i'm sorry you got an aba and you needed an aaa in order to get the scholarship so i i'm sorry and harry turned to leave but then he remembered the letter and he turned back he said oh um you may remember mrs russell from erie pennsylvania she's my former employer and my mother works for her she wrote this letter to you and asked me to give it to you and she was delighted oh that's lovely she opened it up and it's a letter of recommendation reminding her that she had seen harry as the footman the man opening the door at the house and mrs russell said you're that i remember you you were the one who opened the door when we arrived right he said yes ma'am i remember you as well she said this is remarkable she said well this changes everything she said you wait right there i'll be right back and she ran in and talked to the powers that be and convinced them to give harry another try and so i don't know if it was that day or the next day but harry got a second audition this time he nailed it it was perfect they saw how great a musician how great a singer he was and harry received a scholarship to the new world symphony now that was just for the um for the tuition he still needed to do uh he still needed to make money for room and board and so they offered him a a job as a janitor cleaning and mocking the floors i know it was shocking i mean it was it shook his world really my phone just fell sorry and uh so he got that job and uh he used to sing the spirituals and the plantation songs as he'd be you know after everyone had gone home at night he'd be out there mopping the halls and singing these songs and that led to another breakthrough in his life which we'll get to in a moment awesome so how did harry t burley influence antonin devor vorack divorce i know i mispronounced it in the writing of the new world symphony you just mentioned the new world symphony well that is that was the moment so what happened is antonin dvorak was a great very um uh a very respected composer in europe by this time and marlene writes in the divine providence of god amen and so um the head of the conservatory was a a woman named jeannette thurber and her mother her husband was a very wealthy uh merchant and he had he was one of the first people to ever have a chain of grocery stores that went like throughout new york and new england and so they were full of money and so uh jeanette was the one who started the conservatory and she wanted to have the greatest musicians not only as professors but also as uh the president and so she met dvorak in europe and she told him that she wanted him to come to america because she thought that the things that he had done in taking folk music in europe and turning it into classical music she said that's what we need in america we've got folks folk music we now need to elevate it to classical music well um dvorak had been the son of an innkeeper and so he grew up hearing all the umpa drinking songs you know you know all that germanic how'd that go panic you know the type of thing you see in a disney movie you know uh you know i want a guy gaston right anyway um so he grew up hearing all these songs and but he had a a wonderful musical gift and he was brought under the wing of brahms and brahms uh encouraged him to take those folk songs and make classical arrangements to them so that's where we get the slavonic dances and some of the other great uh pieces that dvorak did in europe and so jeanette thurber said come to america and teach our people to do the same thing so that was uh his goal dvorak had seen the fisk jubilee singers which was a singing group from fisk college which is now fisk university and they traveled around america and then around the world raising money by singing the spirituals and dvorak had seen them in prague and said oh this is wonderful and then he had seen some native american indians who were singing and doing their music he found that amazing he heard some of the highlands music uh from appalachia and he thought oh i can't wait to get to america and dig into all of this folk music and so he took the job cool and so on that fateful night there's harry t burley who would learn all the spirituals and all the plantation songs and the folk songs from his grandfather and he's out there you know uh doing you know joshua fit the battle of jericho jericho jericho as he's mopping and all of a sudden from behind the door comes this huge voice what is this music what is this music and it's dvorak the president of the conservatory and he comes bounding out and burley is he's totally panicked because he thought he was disturbing him he didn't know he was there he thought and he said i'm so sorry dr dvorak if i knew you were there i would have kept quiet and divorced was like quiet no no i want to hear everything that you know this is why i came to america i want you to sing everything you know for me excuse me and so for the next nine months dvorak took burley under his wing and burley sang every spiritual every plantation song every work song or folk song that he knew to dvorak dvorak also was listening to the native american stuff he was also listening to the highlands music and he was drinking all of these themes in and mixing them in his genius head and he started writing bit by bit piece by piece and he would give them to burly because burley was a stenographer and so he'd take these scribbled notes and give them to burly and burly would uh create clean copy for him and so after a while burley's like this is genius whatever it is that he's writing is amazing so one night he asked him you know dr dvorak what is it that you're doing and dvorak said i've taken what you've sung for me and the native american music and the highlands music and i'm melding it with classical to create a symphony from the new world which we now know and and many people around the world love and cherish symphony number nine by dvorak which he and he nicknamed from the new world or the new world symphony and so when it was just about finished dvorak played the second movement which is called the largo movement and that is people will recognize it you hear it in movies tv shows commercials yeah it was written in the 18 mid 1890s by antonin dvorak and it's still being used all over the world later on one of dvorak's students not burly but another one put lyrics to that music that second movement and it is the song going home going home going home i'm a going home which is a hauntingly beautiful song that was played at franklin delano roosevelt's funeral oh wow among many other places uh it is just one of the great songs in american history which was the music was written by a a bohemian uh antonin dvorak and dvorak played that for burley and said harry when when i heard your voice and heard the story of your grandfather it made me think of this and i wrote this uh motivated by your voice and by your grandfather's story and so dvorak made it very clear in musical america magazine he said i was influenced by one of my students who sang for me for months and that was harry t burley awesome well so could you please tell us the relationship between burley and another important figure in american history jp morgan yes this is the jp morgan of which we get jp morgan bank right and investments and all the rest he was a um he was a tough businessman but he was a very committed family man and a very committed christian and he was an elder at saint george's episcopal cathedral jp morgan is who i'm talking about here and so what happened is as burley was approaching graduation an opening uh came at st george's episcopal church wh