Burleigh, Seagle, and Deep River: Collaboration Across Racial Lines in the Early 20th Century

Burleigh, H. T, and Oscar Seagle. Deep River. 1916. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-655500/.

Henry Thacker Burleigh (often known simply as Harry or H.T. Burleigh) was an African-American composer and baritone active during the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a classical composer known best for his arrangements of spirituals, contributions to methodist hymnody, and influence on the music of Antonin Dvořák.1

Oscar Seagle was a white American baritone active during the first half of the 20th century. He was well known throughout the United States and Europe as a soloist and performer of folk music and early country music. Seagle recorded several singles with Columbia records during the 1910s and early 1920s.2

In December of 1916, Burliegh and Seagle collaborated to record a single of Burleigh’s recently published arrangement of Deep River.3 Deep River is an African-American spiritual with anonymous origins from the early 19th century. It was popularized by Burliegh during the early 20th century, and is now one of the best known spirituals in the United States.

Many people hold the view that country music has its origins in folk music created solely by white people, and that there was no African-American influence during the formation of country music. This rather popular record is evidence to the contrary. For early country performers such as Seagle, spirituals and music by black composers were seen as part of the same genre as other folk music. These white and black folk songs would often be performed together in the same concert program, as was demonstrated in Minneapolis in 1917.4

Audiences and performers from the early 20th century would have heard African-American spirituals and white folk music together in the same genre of “folk.” Given the apparent lack of barriers between white and black music in this space, it is impossible to deny the influence that these traditions had on one another. Burleigh incorporated classical western instrumentation into his arrangements, as can be heard in the aforementioned record. Likewise, many many white folk singers took narrative and from styles such as the twelve-bar blues from black folk musicians.

The myth of artistic racial segregation of folk music in the 20th century is a marketing stunt by record labels to associate certain modern day cultural elements with their music. Cross-cultural dialogue has always been and continues to be an integral part of the development of musical cultures throughout the United States and the world.

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