Nobody Knows: The Forgotten Story of One of the Most Influential Figures in American Music
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Chapter 1: The Gospel Train
The Lakeshore Limited was only partially filled with passengers as the short, handsome black man climbed aboard and shued down the aisle, searching for a seat next to a north-facing window so that he could watch his beloved Lake Erie as the train skirted the hills of northern Pennsylvania. As Harry Thacker Burleigh stowed his one small suitcase above the seat, the large metal beast shuddered and lurched forward from the wooden railway station, steam belching from the engine and wheels screeching as iron scraped against iron. The locomotive slowly picked up speed as block after block of Harry’s childhood home of Erie, Pennsylvania, passed by his window. Once beyond the city, the train began weaving its way through the thick foliage that grew around the tracks, forming walls of green like a long, leafy tunnel. As the train picked up speed, Harry’s heart began to race. After nearly a decade of paying his dues at weddings, funerals, church services, and even saloons and steamboats, he was finally on his way to New York City for his chance to become a professional musician. The train emerged from the woods onto an open hillside overlooking the Great Lake as the late summer sun reflected o" the surface of the water like a magnificent chandelier. Harry squinted and smiled as the golden rays bathed his face. The great freshwater sea had been a source of play, inspiration, and even provision for him. Now it faded into the distance as the train turned and made its way eastward through mile after mile of Concord grape vineyards and crossed the border into New York State.
It was only a month earlier that Harry’s mother, Elizabeth, had stopped for a break from her job as a servant at the prestigious Russell mansion in Erie to browse through one of her employer’s music magazines. Mrs. Russell, a leading socialite in Erie, was the wife of a wealthy industrialist and a passionate lover of music. She often invited the great musicians who traveled on the railroad from New York to Chicago to stop and entertain leading citizens in her home. Mrs. Russell was a loyal patron of the arts and subscribed to many of the leading music journals of the day, which she would pass on to friends and employees after she had finished reading them from cover to cover. Toward the back of one of these magazines, Elizabeth came across an advertisement that caught her attention:
The National Conservatory of Music in New York City, o"ering scholarships to prospective students, is interested primarily in young Negroes and Native Americans.
“Oh, my Jesus,” she said out loud. “This is for Harry.” Elizabeth excused herself and made a beeline to the Koehler Piano Company, where her son worked as a clerk.
After years of unsuccessfully pursuing the music profession—and now at twenty-six years of age—Harry had surrendered to the reality of making a living outside of the music world. He had impeccable handwriting, so he had settled instead for the stenography profession. At least I can be near music by working at a piano store, he had decided when he answered the employment advertisement for Koehler Piano Company.
On that fateful day, Harry was alarmed when he saw his mother burst through the large glass doors of the piano showroom. Elizabeth had never visited him at work before. He rushed to meet her. “What is it, Mama? Is everything all right?”
“Yes, of course, dear,” she smiled at the startled salesmen and customers, then pulled her son to the corner of the store near the display window. In a low voice, just above a whisper, Elizabeth handed him the magazine and said excitedly, “I just saw this advertisement and I knew you would want to see it.”
The two sat down on a piano bench as Harry read the notice. When he finished he looked up at his mother and said excitedly, “Mama, this could be it.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know,” Elizabeth responded with glee.
“But how can I a"ord a trip to New York? I don’t have much money saved. I would need a new suit, and luggage, and a train ticket.”
“I don’t know how, honey, but I know my God. And if this is what he wants for you, he will make a way.” The two embraced with glistening eyes. Elizabeth kissed her son on the cheek and then slipped out the door to return to the Russell mansion. Harry stood and slowly walked to his small oak stenographer’s desk at the back of the store. He barely accomplished any work the rest of the day as his mind raced at the thought of this new and glorious opportunity.
When the people of Erie who had heard Harry sing learned of the possible scholarship, donations began pouring in. A leading businessman, Isador Sobel, gave Harry a sizable gift from his personal account and encouraged others to donate as well. He had become acquainted with Harry through hearing the young man sing in the Jewish Temple choir. Sobel was not only moved by Burleigh’s voice, but he was also amazed that a black Christian man would work so hard to be a part of a Jewish choir. Money flowed in from other friends and admirers, and soon Harry had enough for the trip.
When the day of his departure arrived, Elizabeth and her husband, Harry’s stepfather John Elmendorf, accompanied the young singer to the clapboard railroad station. As John grabbed the small suitcase from the buggy, Harry and his mother walked arm in arm to the platform. Burleigh wore his best black suit, complete with vest and tie. It was faded and slightly tattered, but in good enough condition for the journey. As they approached the train, Harry stopped and looked into his mother’s eyes. She was his inspiration, and the most graceful, kind, and talented woman he had ever known. Though prejudice had hindered her from realizing her dream of teaching the foreign languages she loved, Elizabeth believed her toil and expectations would be fulfilled through her children.
Elizabeth handed Harry a letter of recommendation written by Mrs. Russell. Before taking the job at the piano company, Harry had worked for years for Mrs. Russell, alongside his mother, learning everything he could from the traveling musicians.
“Mrs. Russell told me that you are to give this to Mrs. MacDowell,” she instructed, referring to the registrar of the conservatory and the mother of one of America’s great composers, Edward MacDowell. “You remember Frances MacDowell, don’t you?”
“It’s been several years, but I believe I’ll be able to recognize her.” He took the letter and placed it inside his suitcase.
The short, aging woman placed her hands on her son’s face and looked tenderly into his eyes. “You must know how proud your father and I are of you.”
“Yes, Mama, I do.”
“God has a purpose for your life, Harry. Don’t you ever forget that fact. No matter what happens in this audition, no matter how successful you become, always remember that, and give the glory to God.”
“I love you, Mama.” Harry pulled her into his arms, and they held each other for a long moment.
“I love you too, baby,” she whispered in his ear. “Send me a telegram as soon as you have news,” she added, wiping away tears with her handkerchief.
Harry kissed his mother on the cheek and then hugged his stepfather, the only father he had ever known. Then he turned, picked up his suitcase, and bounded onto the train. All the years of musical training; singing at weddings, funerals, parties, and in countless choirs; and the innumerable hours of vocal and piano practice were about to be put to the test.
As the cool breeze o" the lake blew through the open windows of the train, Harry closed his eyes and drank it all in. His chance to actually become somebody in the musical world had finally arrived. He had paid his dues, and then some. Now the opportunity he had longed for was at hand. The rhythmic cadence of the train lulled him nearly to sleep. His mind traveled back to the time when his love for music was birthed, back to a simpler era when he would sing the plantation songs as he lit the streetlamps with his beloved grandfather, Hamilton Waters.
Growing up on the hills overlooking the bayfront in Erie, young Harry had always found the sights, sounds, and smells of the piers inviting. He and his older brother, Reginald, often went down to the docks to watch cargo being loaded and unloaded from the wooden ships. The familiar smell of fresh-caught perch, walleye, northern pike, and salmon often caused their bellies to rumble in anticipation of dinner.
But what young Harry loved most about the docks were the songs the sailors and fishermen sang as they plied their trade. Some of these men were former slaves who had worked on plantations in the South. To pass the time and keep the pace of the work moving, slaves had developed an endless repertoire of songs they sang almost unconsciously. When they were freed, these former slaves carried their music with them—it was a part of who they were—and it had become a part of young Harry T. Burleigh too. For years Harry loved to wander down the hillside to the bayfront piers to hear these plantation songs as they echoed oof the water.
Another favorite pastime was to visit the livery, the modestly successful business that helped his stepfather build a house and fill it with children. Harry learned a whole di"erent set of plantation songs from the stable hands as he helped clean out the stalls or brush down the horses. But these were songs that he could never sing at home. If his stepdaddy or mama ever heard him singing those songs, his hide would be tanned with a switch and he’d be burping bubbles for a week from the soap used to wash out his mouth.
These were joyous times for the boy. Though money was often tight, the love given him and his siblings by their parents overshadowed any sense of need. If there was a lack of money, none of the children ever knew it.
In an effort to help provide for the family, Harry’s grandfather, Hamilton Waters, insisted on working as a lamplighter even though he was almost completely blind. Hamilton, who grew up as a slave on Maryland’s eastern shore, had been beaten severely when an overseer caught him trying to learn to read. The whipping damaged his eyes, and as he aged his sight deteriorated even further. Elizabeth sent Reginald and Harry to help their grandfather on alternate days.
Hamilton always started his rounds at the corner of First and State Streets at the top of the hill overlooking Erie’s harbor, Presque Isle Bay. He lit the lamps nearest the water while the sun was still shining to avoid the bitterly cold wind that whipped of the bay after dark. He liked to face north to feel the wind and smell the fishy odor of the day’s catch. To him the cold air coming across Lake Erie from Canada and the sounds and smells of the fisheries meant freedom. In the summer months, when the air became heavy with humidity and the blazing sun scorched the grass, he was reminded of an earlier time on another shore. He looked forward to the cool wind at dusk as he prepared to light the lamps. It reminded him that all was well—he was home.
Some folks complained about the snow and the long, cold winters in Erie. But to Hamilton Waters these were keepsakes of liberty.
“Tell me what you see,” Hamilton asked young Harry as they got under way one special December evening.
Looking out over the bay, the boy described life on America’s northern shore. “The men are bringing the fish of the boats and dumping them in the vats on the docks. There are boats as far as the eye can see. Their masts are poking up into the sky like a forest without any leaves. The sun is flickering on the choppy water.” Harry squinted to see beyond the glare on the water. “The trees on the other side of the bay are swaying in the wind.” He brought his gaze back to the docks on the near shore. “Snow is piled up along the side of the docks where the fishermen shoveled it of earlier. They’re loading cut wood and coal onto the big ship.” Harry turned, looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Where are they gonna take it, Grandpa?”
“Dey takes de coal and lumber from our woods to places all around de lake—to Detroit or Bu"alo, maybe. Der won’t be many more trips dis year. De lake’s ’bout to freeze over.”
Hamilton Waters, who recognized the voice of nearly everyone in Erie, lifted his cap to greet his neighbors as they passed by. “Why, good evening, Mr. Patterson. How do ya’ do, Mrs. Carson. Good day, Mr. Vosburgh.”
When Harry was sure they would not be interrupted, he began to ask Hamilton his usual list of questions. “Grandpa, can you tell me about the slave times?” Harry loved to hear stories of the South, and more than anything he looked forward to singing the plantation songs that his grandaddy taught him as they lit the lamps.
“You knows ’bout how I was a slave, but I done bought my freedom, and my mama’s too,” Hamilton answered his grandson. “De overseers was cruel, and dey’d whup ya’ for talkin’ or even for tryin’ to take a rest. De only ting dat kept up my spirit was de plantation songs.”
“Tell me about the songs. Where did they come from?”
“Well, son, you’s mighty full of questions dis evening,” Hamilton replied, shuing through the snow as the boy led him on. When they arrived at the next lamp, he set down his small wooden ladder and climbed up to do his work. He pulled out a rag and wiped the soot of the glass panes. As he worked he hummed a melody that was familiar
to young Harry. The old man began to sing:
Oh freedom. Oh freedom.
Oh freedom over me.
And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.
And go home to my Lawd, and be free.
Harry held on to the ladder, steadying his grandfather. The old man turned the key to start the gas and then held his thin torch up to light the lamp. Hamilton then closed the little glass door and climbed down of the ladder. They set out through the blowing snow toward you were going to tell me about the plantation songs. What is that one about?”
Hamilton laughed, leaned his ladder against a lamppost, and sat down on a wooden bench to take a rest. Harry snuggled up next to him to keep warm. “OK, OK, I’ll tell ya’. For more den two hundred years, our people sang de slave songs to comfort demselves in de troubled time. We’d sing de songs in de fields to help us keep workin’. At night, mamas and papas would sing ’em to der younguns to help ’em get to sleep.
“Der was di"erent kinds of slave songs too. Songs like ‘Deep River’ or ‘Balm in Gilead’ told us dat God delivered Moses and Daniel and such—someday he’d deliver us too, if we kept on praisin’ him.” The boy listened intently as he imagined the slaves singing the spirituals to give them hope and courage to press on.
Hamilton continued, “Other songs was ’bout breakin’ free.” He sang a tune to the boy.
When de sun comes back and de first quail calls,
Follow de drinkin’ gourd.
For de old man is a-waitin’ to carry you to freedom,
If you follow de drinkin’ gourd.
Harry giggled at what sounded to him like a silly song. “You tink dat’s funny?” Hamilton asked as he tickled the lad. Harry squirmed like a snake, trying unsuccessfully to get away from his grandfather’s grasp. When the horseplay finally subsided, Hamilton went on with the story. “Did you ever play wid a treasure map, Harry?”
The boy grew excited. “Ooh, yes, I love treasure maps!”
“Well dat song is a treasure map.” Harry’s face contorted in a puzzled expression. Hamilton continued. “Dat song is a map to the Underground Railroad.” He stood up, lifted his ladder onto his shoulder, and walked to the next lamppost as Harry followed behind. The old man put the ladder against the pole and stepped up to light the lamp.
“What’s the Underground Railroad?” Harry questioned.
His granddaddy kept talking as he went through his routine, the steam of his breath billowing around his dim eyes. “De story comes from de slave times. Der was folks like me who worked fo’ de massa. More den anything, we wanted to be free. And der was brave people who’d help de slaves to run away. Der would be people hidin’ in de woods who would help ’em go north. Dey’d meet up wid other slaves and work der way to freedom. Dey called dis de Underground Railroad.”
“Did you walk through tunnels?” the wide-eyed lad asked.
Hamilton smiled at his freeborn grandson. “No, boy, dat’s just what dey called it. Yo’ daddy and mama used to work on de Railroad, and so did I.”
“Really,” Harry exclaimed. “What did you do?”
“Yo’ daddy and I helped people get to freedom. De slave owners had mean men wid horses and dogs who’d try to catch runaway slaves when dey was headin’ north. Dat’s why dey sang dis song. De drinkin’ gourd is de Big Dipper. Dose stars point north.”
“Wow, that’s pretty smart!” Harry responded with a grin.
“Dat’s right,” his grandfather agreed. “Dey would also sing ‘Wade in de Water.’”
“That’s one of my favorites,” the boy said excitedly.
“Mine too,” Hamilton replied. “De bloodhounds couldn’t track de slaves when dey was in de water, so dey stayed in a stream if dey heard de dogs and horses comin’. Dat’s what de song means—wade in de water.”
The two lonely figures came to the town square. It was nearly dark and no one else was outside on this blustery evening. They crossed the frozen street, stepping over the ice-covered wagon tracks, and began lighting the lamps around the square. Harry’s teeth chattered as he fought to stay warm.
“It sure is cold tonight, Grandpa. Why did you come to Erie? Why didn’t you stay where it’s warm?” the boy questioned.
“I came here because dis is where der was freedom,” the old man answered. “Wid God’s help, I worked hard and saved my money. I bought my freedom and came to Erie. Boy, I tell you,” Hamilton declared as he blew his warm breath into his cupped hands, “it may be cold here, but to me, dis place is de Garden of Eden.”
They approached the next lamp, and the mostly blind man went through his routine. Hamilton lit the next few lamps in silence. He wanted his grandson to think about what he had told him. By now it was completely dark, and they needed to finish the job so the shopkeepers and neighbors could see as they walked or rode their buggies down the street.
Hamilton lit the final lamp on his route and then climbed down the ladder to begin the walk home. Placing his arm around the shivering boy, he declared, “Harry, de winters in Erie are fierce, dere’s no doubt about it. But I ain’t gonna complain. No sir. Dis is where de good Lawd brought me, and dis is where I’s gonna stay. You remember de children of Israel in de desert, before dey went into de Promised Land?” Harry nodded. “Dey went ’round dat mountain for forty years, jest ’cause dey couldn’t stop bellyachin’.” The boy giggled at his granddaddy, causing the old man to smile. “Now Harry, you’s got a Promised Land dat you’s got to find too. If you moans and complains, you might never get der. But if you praise de Lawd, no matter what be happenin’ in yo’ life, good or bad, you’ll cross over yo’ Jordan and take yo’ Promised Land.” The thought filled the old man with zeal, and he shouted into the frigid wind, “Hallelujah! Glory be!”
The two shivering souls stopped in front of the Russell estate, where Harry’s mother, Elizabeth, was working that evening. Through the window, the boy could see the guests dressed in elegant evening wear gathered to hear the great musicians who had come from far away to perform at the patron’s Erie mansion. The glow from the lamps and from the crackling fire beamed from the tall, draped windows. Every once in a while Harry saw his mother walk by the window, carrying a tray filled with hors d’oeuvres. The faint sound of the chamber quartet could be heard above the whistling wind.
The old man knew of his grandson’s love for music. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and spoke into his ear, “Son, you’s got de gift of vision, jest like I did. You can see tings—tings de way dey are, and tings de way dey could be. God has given you dis gift, Harry. Use it fo’ him, and don’t let dis world take it away. No matter what happens, you keep on praisin’ de Lawd.”
Harry looked up at the old man and said sadly, “I would love to be in there listening to the music, Grandpa.”
Hamilton spoke gently to his grandson, “Have patience, my boy. Yo’ time’s comin’.”
Inspired by the music, Harry asked, “Grandpa, can we sing a song?”
“Why, certainly sir. Ain’t no better ting den singin’ wid my grandson. What do you want to sing?”
“Let’s sing ‘Freedom,’ the song you were just singing!”
A sharp wind blew through the square. “Well, I guess we’s already done wid de lamps,” Hamilton replied as he squinted to see the park that was now golden with the light that they had provided. “We jest have time enough to sing de song tonight on our way back.” They turned and started walking toward home, laughing and singing the familiar tune:
Oh freedom. Oh freedom.
Oh freedom over me.
And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.
And go home to my Lawd, and be free.
No more weepin’. No more weepin’.
No more weepin’ over me.
And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.
And go home to my Lawd and be free.
Classical music flowed from the mansion and mingled with the old plantation song as the winter wind whistled along. A dream was born in the heart of the young child that cold December night in Erie, Pennsylvania—a Christmas present that would be God’s gift to the rest of humanity.
Craig von Buseck, Nobody Knows. Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2014. Used by permission.
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