Wednesday, February 6, 2019

H.T. Burleigh Society: Meet Historian Dr. Jean Snyder, Burleigh Biographer

Dr. Jean Snyder

Tell us about your training as a historian.

As an English teacher and a lover of literature, and as a singer and a lover of music, I have always been interested in the history of literature and music. Reading African and African American literature piqued my interest in African and African American history. As an ethnomusicologist, I learned the importance of studying how music functions in people’s lives. Studying Harry T. Burleigh’s life and music has taught me the critical importance of understanding and portraying the historical and social context of his life. Now I’m hooked—there is always more to learn!
How did you discover Burleigh as a subject you wanted to research and write about?

When a friend in Kenya told me, "I need some spirituals; I don't care what they are, just as long as they are arranged by H. T. Burleigh," I didn't realize I'd been listening to recordings of his spiritual arrangements by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson for years. When I wrote my first graduate seminar paper on Burleigh's life and music, I was astounded to discover the depth and breadth of his contribution to the music of America and the world, and I realized that much of his story hadn’t been told. With the help of Burleigh’s family and the endlessly fascinating search in many primary sources, I have been privileged to help make that story more complete.
What were the most challenging aspects of your project on Burleigh? Were you able to overcome them?

I soon discovered that the "usual sources" would not take me very far; there were primary sources that had not been tapped by previous writers on Burleigh's life. For example, the time-consuming search in microfilms of black newspapers in Erie, PA (before there were online databases) yielded priceless information. Additionally, there were many errors and contradictions in published accounts of Burleigh’s life. I needed to learn the truth if at all possible, however long that might take. In some ways, not being on the "publish or perish" tenure track allowed me to take the years of research that were required to do Burleigh's story justice. It has been a deeply enriching journey. 
What are you curious about these days? What’s attracting your research attention?

While the search for more 
information and insight 
into Burleigh’s life and 
 music continues, I’m 
also looking at the 
lives of some of Burleigh’s 
 contemporaries whose 
stories need to be told. 
There is so much to 
learn about these African 
American musicians 
and their seminal 
contributions to the music 
and the musical theater of 
America: "The half has 
never yet been told!”

Fisk Jubilee Singers® Sing 

Harry T. Burleigh 


March 2nd 2019
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
The Harry T. Burleigh Society 
and the Fisk Jubilee 
Singers® join in a 
historic performance 
celebrating Ella Sheppard 
(1851–1915), an original 
Fisk Jubilee Singer, and 
Harry T. Burleigh (1866–
1949), leaders of the concert 
spiritual tradition. The Fisk 
Jubilee Singers® will 
perform the music of 
these under-heard cultural 
leaders, and make calls for 

More Than the Promise of the American Myth: Rethinking Burleigh & Sheppard 
in the 
Second Gilded Age

March 3rd, 2019 
May Room - Weill Terrace Room, Carnegie Hall
9am - 3pm 

The Harry T. Burleigh Society's 
first academic conference 
considers Burleigh's and 
Sheppard's impact on the 
concert spiritual genre, 
the historiographic 
limits of composer 
biography, Black art music 
aesthetics, and the 
liberatory capabilities 
within the work of 
Burleigh, Sheppard, and 
their contemporaries. 
Dr. Daphne Brooks will 
deliver the keynote 
address. Other 
speakers include Dr. 
Louise Toppin, baritone 
 Kenneth Overton, Dr. 
Crystal deGregory and 
descendants of Burleigh 
and Sheppard. 

Free and open to 
the public. Registration 

Thank you for your
continued support of the
Harry T. Burleigh Society. 

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