Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: “Whistling Rufus”
Composer: Kerry Mills
Publisher: F.A. Mills
Year & Place: 1899, New York, NY
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music #571 no. 5
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: no571.5
A black man, wearing a top hat, a formal jacket with tails, and gaily-patterned trousers, is shown seated behind palm plants in a chair on a stage, strumming a guitar, tapping his feet and, ostensibly, whistling through large, white, pursed lips. In the far distance five, similarly white-lipped couples, hand in hand, form a dancing line in this dance hall-like setting. The two color (black and yellow-orange) lithograph breaks up the monotony of this otherwise stark, graphic rendering.
After seeing stereotypic image after stereotypic image, one gets pretty inured to the pictorial put-downs and racial aspersions after a while. The visual jokes that are supposedly contained in representations of big lips, over-attenuated musical and rhythmic acumen, and in minstrel absurdities are somehow emptied of their poison after multiple viewings, eventually becoming empty symbols of racism and derogation. The fault line that the stereotype frequently tumbles over is a reiteration that, without reinforced confirmations from the culturally illiterate or knowingly racist, implode upon themselves and, thus, communicate nothing but foul air.
Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)
Harry Thacker Burleigh played a significant role in the development of American art song, having composed over two hundred works. He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals. In addition, Burleigh was an accomplished baritone, a meticulous editor, and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh received his first music training from his mother. After discovering Burleigh’s musical talent, his mother’s employer gave Burleigh a job as a doorman at the musicales she hosted in her home. This afforded Burleigh the opportunity to hear guest performers such as Teresa Carreño and Italo Campanini. In 1892, Burleigh received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York.
The years Burleigh spent at the Conservatory greatly influenced his career, mostly due to his association and friendship with Antonín Dvorák, the Conservatory’s director. After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his maternal grandfather for Dvorák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his own compositions. In turn, Dvorák’s use of the spirituals “Goin’ Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”). In addition, Burleigh served as copyist for Dvorák, a task that prepared him for his future responsibilities as a music editor.
In 1894, Burleigh auditioned for the post of soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York. To the consternation of the congregation, which objected because Burleigh was black, he was given the position. However, through his talent and dedication (he held the appointment for over fifty years, missing only one performance during his tenure), Burleigh won the hearts and the respect of the entire church community.
In 1898, he married poet Louise Alston; a son, Alston, was born the following year. That same year, G. Schirmer published his first three songs. In 1900, Burleigh was the first African-American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue, and by 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi. His success was enhanced through the publication of several of his compositions, including “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), a collection entitled Jubilee Songs of the USA (1916), and his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), for which he is best remembered. Burleigh died in New York City in 1949.