Dreams Coming True: Discovering and Writing Harry T. Burleigh’s Story (plus a giveaway)

Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT).

Welcome Craig von Buseck, author of Nobody Knows: The Harry T. Burleigh Story, to Dreams Coming True! Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Nobody Knows!

Tell us a little about yourself, Craig. 


I am a lover of Jesus, an author, a professional speaker, and a contributing writer and former producer for CBN.com, the official website of the Christian Broadcasting Network. I write a monthly column for Cindy Jacobs’ prayer website, www.usrpn.org. I am also a monthly guest on Susie Larson’s Live the Promise radio program. I hold a Doctor of Ministry and an MA in religious journalism from Regent University. I am the author of several books and have traveled extensively to speak and minister both in America and abroad. I live in North Carolina with my wife, Robin. We have 6 children and one snuggly dog.

When did this creative dream begin?

I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and I had heard of Burleigh Elementary School, but I had no idea who Harry T. Burleigh was. Then a friend invited me to see the one-man play that he wrote and starred in on the life of Burleigh, and I was very impressed. At the time I was getting ready to work on my Master’s thesis for Regent University, and I thought Burleigh’s story would make a great project. But when I started doing research on Burleigh’s life and musical contribution and I was blown away.

After I learned that Harry T. Burleigh…

…was the grandson of a slave who won a scholarship to study voice at the New York Conservatory of Music (the forerunner of Juilliard).

…influenced Antonin Dvorak in the writing of his famous “New World Symphony.”

…was handpicked by J.P. Morgan – who was the senior elder at the prestigious St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan – to be the baritone soloist (a position he held for 52 years).

…was a personal friend of Booker T. Washington – and often served as his opening act when he spoke.

…gave command performances to King Edward of England and Teddy Roosevelt.

…was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP – and honor later given to Martin Luther King, Jr.

…worked tirelessly to make the Negro Spirituals known to the world – arranging numerous artistic versions of the spirituals, and even saving some of them from obscurity.

…influenced the next generation of artists, including Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, John McCormack, and many others.

I knew that a book needed to be written about his remarkable life.

Then I heard a musicologist named Dominique-Rene De Lerma on National Public Radio say, “…in Harry T. Burleigh you have the birth of American music.” I knew I had found a story that need to be told, so when I finished my Master’s theses I went on to complete the writing of his narrative biography.

What makes your project stand out from the crowd?

My father told me to study the lives of great people to learn from both their accomplishments and their mistakes. Harry T. Burleigh was a truly great American musician who had both triumphs and tragedies in his life. One can learn important life lessons from reading his story.

But this is also the story of an African American man who went from relative poverty to international acclaim at the height of Jim Crow racism in America. He reached the pinnacle of success at every stage of his career – first as a gifted soloist; then as a songwriter and arranger of Negro Spirituals; and finally as an editor at Ricordi and Sons, one of the largest music publishers in the world. I worked to tell this inspirational story in what I hope is an entertaining way that people won’t want to put down.

What are the goals and intentions of this project?

The title of this book has a dual meaning. On the one hand Nobody Knows reminds us of the haunting Negro Spiritual that cries out to God for help in the midst of sorrow. On the other hand, this title speaks to the fact that his amazing story was hidden from the general public for decades until ‘nobody knew’ who Harry T. Burleigh was.

It was a joy and privilege to uncover this rich narrative and once again bring Burleigh’s story to the world’s attention. I once saw a painting of Harry T. Burleigh’s hanging in the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in an exhibit called ‘Great African American Leaders’. This confirmed to me that a book needed to be written to re-tell Burleigh’s inspiring story to a new generation.

How does your project create community?

Racism has divided the American community since it was first introduced in the Jamestown Colony in the 1600’s. It has been said that while the North won the Civil War, the South won the peace – and cruel segregation kept the races separate, but certainly not equal. This was the world into which Harry T. Burleigh – the grandson of a slave – was born. Nobody Knows tells the story of Harry’s struggle to overcome the obstacles placed in his way at the height of Jim Crow America to become one of the greatest musicians in our history.

In Chapter 21, I mention that Harry’s final artistic arrangement was created for the hymn, “In Christ There is No East or West” in 1940. The music was set to words written by William A. Dunkerley for the Pageant of Darkness and Light at the London Missionary Society’s exhibition in 1908. In one final flourish, Harry T. Burleigh declared the message of his life’s work to the world.9780801016097-1

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly…but then enthusiasm drizzles off?

I like to quote my father, because he has shared a great deal of his wisdom with me over the years. He once told me, find out what God wants you to do, and then do that thing with all your heart, and eventually you will be known as the person who does that thing.

The key to finishing the things we start is to know that God is leading us to do them in the first place. Then we work as unto Him to see that the project is completed with excellence.

Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your project. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributor have a specific role?

I have pretty much worked on my own over the years – though my wife, Robin, is a very good editor and has helped in the editing and proofing stages. She is also a great sounding board for ideas.

I have a list of potential projects that I keep in an electronic folder on my computer. There are certain ideas that continue to spark my imagination, while others fall to the wayside. If you are going to commit yourself to writing a book, you need to first have a passion for the idea, then you need know that there is also interest for the idea in the marketplace. The next step is to make sure that no one has already written it. I’ve actually had two ideas that I was passionate about, but someone had already written a book using that same idea – one had actually won the Pulitzer Prize. So it is important to do thorough research before you get started on a project that could take months – and possibly years to complete.

What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?

Learning the craft of writing and the expectations of the marketplace. Writing is not only an art, it is a craft. There are certain expectations for how a book in a particular genre is supposed to be written – especially when you are a new author. Take the time and energy to learn your craft and the expectations of your genre. Go to the writers conferences and take the classes for your genre. Read the books they recommend. Then make the changes necessary to your manuscript to prepare it for sale in the marketplace.

What have you learned?

Aside from seeking God first for guidance on every project, I have learned that you need to be willing to sacrifice your comforts and some of your relationships in order to achieve the goal of becoming an author. I don’t watch traditional TV because I don’t have time to spend. I do watch Netflix, but that is after the work of the day is done and I am ready to relax. Or we may rent a movie from Redbox. But as a writer I need to spend time reading, doing research, and writing. So I need to be careful how I spend my time.

There is much more I have learned, but these are two of the most important lessons.

Have there been any unexpected surprises?

I have been surprised at how long it has taken to get some projects that I thought were sure things published. Then I have also been surprised when God has opened a door to a project that I wasn’t even looking for and it goes to print very quickly. I’ve learned to trust in His sovereignty over my life and my writing.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about starting your project?

I have worked as a ghost writer, or a co-writer for a few projects and every time the person who has hired me has been shocked to learn how much work it is to write a book. Then they have been further dismayed to see how challenging it is to get that book published.

What are some ways you promote your project?

One has to understand the concept of ‘platform’ in order to know how to be effective in promoting their projects. Social media is one plank in a platform; Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. Traveling and speaking is another plank. Being a guest columnist for a popular blog or website is another. Television and radio appearances are another. You can also host a TV or radio show – but sometimes this can become so taxing that you stop writing, so you need to always ask yourself, ‘Is this what I’m called to do?’

Creating something is one skill. Marketing and promoting it is an entirely different skill set. How has that gone for you? Shocked by the amount of work marketing takes? Or pleasantly surprised?

I started a Christian rock band with my brother and sister when we were all teens. We traveled throughout the northeastern US for several years. So I learned at a very early age the importance of marketing, promotion, platform, and mailing lists. I find that the promotion of my writing and speaking ministry is very similar to the promotion we used to do for the band – minus the big 80s hair and parachute pants…

Any marketing mistakes you would avoid?

Give your audience something of value as much as you can. Then sell your products. It is a difficult, but important balance to strike. People don’t want to feel like you are constantly hawking your wares. They want to feel as though you value them and want to serve them.

What social network has worked best for you?

In my opinion, Facebook is still the champion. It has the most ease of use and the biggest audience. I have been disappointed with some of the changes they have made this year and I’ve seen a significant decrease in my audience as a result. But hopefully this is just a speed bump and they will turn things around soon. (I also recommend Twitter and Google+).

What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?

As I mentioned earlier, once you know what God has called you to do in His service, learn the craft and then do it with all your heart. He may one day tell you to do something else – as he has with me more than once. But until He makes that clear, in the mouth of two or three witnesses, continue to pursue your calling, don’t despise the days of small beginnings, serve where God plants you, and always remember to give Him the glory.

Where do you see this project in five years?

My hope is that Nobody Knows: The Harry T. Burleigh Story will be picked up by colleges, schools, homeschool groups, libraries, and other educational groups as required reading for Black History Month and on other literary reading guides. I am already working on a screenplay adaptation of the book and have talked to some interested film producers and actors. I could also see this story one day become a Broadway musical. I believe Harry’s timeless story can inspire generations for years to come.

How do you balance the pursuit of your creative dream with your relationship with God, your spouse and family, and the rest of life?

It is a never ending series of adjustments – but it begins with knowing what your priorities are.

  1. Your relationship with God.
  2. The relationship with your spouse.
  3. The relationship with your children and family.
  4. Your full-time job (if writing is not yet your means of income)
  5. Your writing.

Keep in mind that the first commandment has to always remain first – to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Then the second commandment falls in line – to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matt. 22:36-40).

How can we find your creative dream come true?

Learn more about ‘Nobody Knows’ here, or at my website, www.vonbuseck.com.

Nobody Knows Event Invite

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About Suzanne

Suzanne Woods Fisher writes bestselling, award winning fiction and non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books. Her interest in the Plain People began with her Old Order German Baptist grandfather, raised in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Suzanne's app, Amish Wisdom, delivers a daily Amish proverb to your phone or iPad. She writes a bi-monthly column for Christian Post and Cooking & Such magazine. She lives with her family in California and raises puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. To Suzanne's way of thinking, you can't take life too seriously when a puppy is running through your house with someone's underwear in its mouth.


  1. Valerie says:

    This was an exciting interview, with great questions from Suzanne as well as great replies from Craig. As a former CBN writing colleague of Craig’s, I can remember him telling me about his dream to one day write and publish this book. So it’s wonderful to now see his longtime dream and hard work come to fruition, and of course this reality goes perfectly with the title of this blog site.
    Blessings Galore to both Craig and Suzanne in living and helping to inspire others to pursue and hopefully fulfill their dreams and most importantly God’s calling.

  2. Connie Saunders says:

    I found this interview fascinating because I was unaware of this man and his tremendous talent!

  3. Angie Carroll says:

    I think the book sounds interesting!

  4. An excellent interview – much to glean from the Black History and musical history informational aspect and as a writer. Thank you, I’ll be passing this on!

  5. Ola Norman says:

    Great interview and the book sounds like a winner.

  6. Kristie D. says:

    Wow! I had no idea about him. But I bet you hear that often. *LOL* Thanks for your effort! Your project sounds great! I’m a librarian so I can appreciate your research. It is important to choose how we spend our time. Our time on earth is finite. I just bought a new Bible and my goal is to read the whole thing this year. I never have. Wish me luck. kristiedonelson(at)gmail(dot)com Thank you!

  7. Mindy Hartwell says:

    This book sounds fascinating. I am looking forward to a chance to read it. Thank you for the introduction.

  8. Melanie Backus says:

    The interview was very interesting and I think the book would be a great read!

    melback at gmail dot com