Mapping H.T. Burleigh
As you read about our research and explore our maps, listen to our Spotify Playlist of recordings of H.T. Burleigh’s art songs and spirituals.
Our research team came into this project with a few simple questions: How can maps help us better understand H.T. Burleigh’s significance as a composer and performer, and how can maps reveal the full extent of his influence? As we learned throughout this project, Burleigh was an ideal candidate to bring to a digital mapping platform. We can pinpoint parts of his tours with the New Orleans Jubilee Singers and where he interacted with Antonín Dvořák at the National Conservatory. We can map his own performances, where others were performing his music, where he traveled, and where his influence spread over his lifetime. Our maps reveal trends that highlight new areas of research to explore as we continue to uncover more information about Burleigh. Because no significant work has ever been done in mapping Burleigh, these maps are intended to be an overview and introduction to his life and legacy.
In the introduction to this project, we argued that there is value in mapping the normalcy of a great person’s life. Burleigh was a marginalized composer who faced many challenges because of the nature of the world he lived in, but only focusing on this aspect of his life does not do his work justice. When we look at Burleigh’s early life in Erie, Pennsylvania or the dozens of concerts that he gave at St. George’s Cathedral in New York, we can start to see him as a composer and performer instead of sensationalizing and reducing him to the challenges he overcame. When we look at the personal interactions that Burleigh had with other famous black artists like Roland Hayes, we can start to see him as the mentee and great supporter of civil rights that he was. From our map of Burleigh’s most significant performers, we see how quickly Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements spread not only throughout the United States, but the world. Burleigh was not the first to commercialize spirituals, but he is an essential piece of the puzzle when trying to better understand the spread of the concert spiritual in the United States and abroad.
Deciding What to Map
Asking narrower questions like “where could you hear Burleigh’s music during his lifetime?” and “in what other ways besides music performance did his influence spread nationally, even globally?” inspired our research methodologies, and the resulting data collection gave us a clearer sense for the scopes of the maps we would create. Mapping performances seemed relatively straightforward, especially because scholars working elsewhere and previous St. Olaf teams had already pioneered this kind of approach. But we also wanted to humanize Burleigh; we wanted to understand him as a member of communities, as an ambitious artist striving for an international career, and as a citizen embedded in particular political, social, religious, and gendered contexts. Our initial idea was to make a “Global Burleigh” map – a visualization of performances, locations of personal interest, and places of contextual importance where anyone could immediately get a broad view of what Burleigh did and where his life unfolded. We later retitled this map “Burleigh’s Life and Legacy” and, as you can see, it serves as evidence of what happens when you don’t make decisions about what’s worth mapping, but rather include a little bit of everything:
While it is possible to limit which layers you see on the map above (just click what looks like a stack of three pages and deselect some of the checked boxes), beyond its immediate visual impact the map nevertheless proves less useful and meaningful because of the broadness of its topic than a map featuring more limited, more specific, and more comprehensive datasets.
When we limit the geographical and topical scope of our maps to performances that Burleigh gave (below left), or Burleigh’s time in New York (below center), or all documented performances of Burleigh’s music (below right), the maps become more user-friendly and better suited to serving as evidence for scholarly arguments. Click on the titles above each map below to open it in a larger window.
One of our goals in this project was to allow users to access various research materials (historical newspaper articles, handwritten letters, concert programs) as well as media representing Burleigh’s creative output (sheet music, video and audio recordings) through our maps. Alas, a mapping platform has not yet been invented that can easily accommodate a variety of media files through the same data collection and upload process currently required by platforms like ArcGIS.com, Carto, and even Google MyMaps. Mapping the archive and allowing widespread access to primary source documents remains an ambition that we’ll continue to pursue, but for now we were at least encouraged by our ability to present selected Burleigh-related media and primary source documents in the following map. Click on a marker (indicating a performance) and scroll down within the pop-up screen to see primary source documentation or related media for that performance.
Deciding How to Map
One common criticism of digital humanities work is that scholars take existing data as the be-all-end-all of what can be done. In short, it’s easy to map first and ask research questions later. But we wanted our maps to answer the pre-existing research questions articulated above and therefore we needed to shape the data – and the maps’ designs – to our needs. On advice from former students (whose blog posts we read and who guest lectured in class) and in response to a number of readings in the digital humanities, in visual design, and in geography, we worked backwards: first we determined what experience we wanted our users to get from our maps. Then we determined what functionality the maps would have to ensure that experience. That in turn motivated the way we would divide up our data to create distinct layers of information, and this third decision determined what data we would collect and how we would format it.
For example, in our map on Burleigh’s time in New York City, we wanted users to be able to compare where Burleigh performed versus where others performed Burleigh’s music; we wanted to know how often Burleigh or others performed in Harlem; we wanted to compare the places that defined Burleigh’s life outside of performing – where he and his friends lived, where he worked and socialized – with the places he performed; and we wanted to provide some historical context in the form of contemporaneous maps and neighborhood boundaries.
What We Didn’t Map
We have only started to scratch the surface of H.T. Burleigh with our work. There were many research paths that we went down that we ultimately decided not to map, or we concluded that we did not have all the necessary resources right now to do the research justice. Inspired by digitalharlem.org, we did research on the music of the Harlem Renaissance in general to see how Burleigh might have been a part of the larger movement landscape. We spent a great deal of time researching the people that Burleigh knew to better understand his significance through his acquaintances.
We also looked at racialized spaces to see in which types of venues Burleigh was performing. Finally, we played with the possibility of mapping Burleigh’s concert tours like some of our classmates did with the tours of Mozart. In some of these cases, Cartesian mapping was not the right tool for understanding our data, for instance in the case of Burleigh’s friends and colleagues. That data could be better represented as a network map or correspondences tree. In other cases, we did not have access to the time or resources to complete a certain map, but we can imagine how subsequent researchers might continue work in a number of areas.