Harry Burleigh’s “Deep River” of Common Humanity on NPR (Joe Horowitz, 4/13/24, Unanswered Questions)

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.