One of America’s great composers, Harry T. Burleigh was born in 1866 in Erie. The grandson of Hamilton Waters from whom he learned the old Negro spirituals, Burleigh became a notable local vocalist in his youth. Leaving Erie for New York City in 1892, Burleigh studied at the National Conservatory where he met Antonin Dvořák. The brilliant Czech composer found in Burleigh’s singing of “the negro melodies of America . . . all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” integrating them into his own compositions and greatly encouraging Burleigh’s career.
Possessing an extraordinary baritone voice, Burleigh soon became the soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City (a position he would hold for more than half a century). He was also soloist at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, where he composed the arrangement of “Deep River.” Burleigh went on to perform at prestigious venues throughout Europe, while his compositions and arrangements—inspired in the streets of Erie by his melodious grandfather Hamilton Waters—helped make him one of the most accomplished musicians of the century and one of the most influential citizens in Erie history. When Harry T. Burleigh died in 1949, he was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, mourned by a crowd of 2,000—millionaires and “the plain people of Harlem.”