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In April 1940, a fire torched a social gathering in Natchez, Mississippi, burning 200 people alive, injuring many others, and affecting nearly every family in the town, which was 60 percent black.  His instincts refined by his previous research, Work suspected that there would be folk songs commemorating the tragedy, and requested permission from the president of Fisk, Thomas Elsa Jones, to go to Natchez and collect those songs for his burgeoning archive.


But the Natchez trip wasn’t envisioned as an excursion onto itself.  Work saw Natchez as an ideal place to launch a comprehensive folk music study, taking in not just the music but also the surrounding social customs and conditions.  Other Fisk professors were brought into the initial discussions, including Dr. Charles S. Johnson, head of the social sciences department.


cover art

American Negro Songs And Spirituals

John Wesley Work

A Comprehensive Collection Of 230 Folk Songs, Religious And Secular

(Bonanza)

 


cover art

Can’t Be Satisfied

Robert Gordon

The Life and Times of Muddy Waters

(Back Bay)

 


cover art

American Negro Songs And Spirituals

John Wesley Work

A Comprehensive Collection Of 230 Folk Songs, Religious And Secular

(Bonanza)

 


cover art

Can’t Be Satisfied

Robert Gordon

The Life and Times of Muddy Waters

(Back Bay)

 


cover art

The Land Where the Blues Began

Alan Lomax

(New Press)

 


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Lost Delta Found

Lewis Wade Jones, John W. Work, Samuel C. Adams, Robert Gordon, Bruce Nemerov

Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942

(Vanderbilt University Press)

cover art

The Land Where the Blues Began

Alan Lomax

(New Press)

 


cover art

Lost Delta Found

Lewis Wade Jones, John W. Work, Samuel C. Adams, Robert Gordon, Bruce Nemerov

Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942

(Vanderbilt University Press)

By late June, it was clear that the project was becoming bigger than just a university research trip.  Work wrote Jones in 1941, “As you will recall we mentioned the possibility of tying up with the Library of Congress and its tremendous project in Americana folklore research…It certainly would be to our advantage to have the opportunity to work with these American folklore collectors because of their wide experience in the field.”


“These American folklore collectors” were primarily John and Alan Lomax, the father-and-son team whose work collecting and recording vernacular music throughout America had won them wide renown and considerable influence.  It was thought that having the Library’s weight behind the project would lend some heft, since many African-Americans didn’t take black folk music seriously as a field meriting concentrated study.


Alan Lomax took interest in the project, and was looking forward to working with Johnson, who had published major sociological research on the black South (and who had helped Work get his American Negro Songs and Spirituals published in 1940). As it turned out, another sociology instructor at Fisk, Lewis Jones, would do the bulk of the social science work on the field study.  Lomax attended folk music concerts at Fisk in May 1941, as part of the university’s 75th anniversary, and discussed the project directly with Work and the other main players while on campus.  By now the study area had been expanded from Natchez to the broader Mississippi Delta region.


Let’s note here that it was Work who first conceived the project, and Fisk who brought Lomax and the Library into it.  By the summer of 1941, however, correspondence between Lomax and the Fiskites seemed to indicate that Lomax would be calling the shots, and that Work had been relegated to second banana on a research project he initiated.  Lomax seemed more interested in the sociological aspect than the field recording, and insisted that Work turn over to the Library any field recordings he made during the trip. This development would have major implications for the outcome of the research.


After continued correspondence and negotiation, the first excursion set out for Coahoma County, Mississippi, in August 1941 (the project would be officially named the Fisk University – Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-42). During the weeklong stay, Work and Lomax made several recordings at various churches, asking around who the best blues singers were.  One name kept coming back to them, of a young man on the Stovall plantation named McKinley Morganfield who called himself Muddy Water. 


On August 31, they showed up on the plantation and arranged a sitdown with him, and recorded two solo performances, “Country Blues” and “I Be’s Troubled” and a brief interview with Water, who called himself “Stovall’s famous guitar picker” on disc. (It’s instructive to note that Work wrote the song titles in his notes as, respectively, “I Feel Like Going Home” and “I’ve Never Been Satisfied”, which were far closer to the titles used when newer versions of those songs became Muddy Waters’ first hits up North a few years later.)


On a return trip to the region in July 1942, Lomax (without Work) made additional field recordings of Waters, this time with his band including fiddler Son Sims.  The loose-flowing, ebullient music captures the blues at a moment of transition: Its country roots are easily apparent in the performances, but so is a driving swing that hints at changes to come.


Lomax included the 1941 recordings on the 1943 album Afro-American Blues and Game Songs; Waters used his first professional sides to establish his bonafides as a serious musician. The entire Lomax-Work sessions are documented on the CD The Complete Plantation Recordings (Chess, 1993) and in Robert Gordon’s biography Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (Little, Brown, 2002), but there’s one more piece to the puzzle.  In the spring of 1943, long after the Coahoma County study, Work went back down there on another research project and met up with Waters on the plantation.  He did some additional interviews with him, and took the now-iconic photo of Waters and Sims relaxing on a porch.  That was, quite literally, the last snapshot of an era.  A few weeks later, Waters was gone for Chicago.


* * *

As for the rest of the original research project, the fits and starts in evidence before the first Coahoma County trip turned out to be mere foreshadowing.  Jones and graduate student Samuel Adams continued the field research, while Work and an assistant began transcribing the field recordings from the August trip. Lomax was to return to the county in the fall to complete the field recording, but various factors (including a bumper cotton crop and the bombing of Pearl Harbor) pushed the trip into July 1942.  The intent all along was for Fisk to publish a comprehensive study co-edited by Johnson and Lomax, but Lomax began questioning what the Library’s actual role in the final project would be, and Johnson did not feel the field research, while valuable, was up to his standards of depth and scope.  The Fiskites learned in October that Lomax had left the Library; once he was gone, no one there seemed urgently concerned about the project.  Jones was about to join the military, leaving Work as the only original cast member still directly involved.


And involved he was: he officially received the go-ahead from Fisk in September 1942 to take charge of making sense of all the material gathered and assemble the book.  For his part, he had continued his own study into black folk music, and returned to the Delta in 1943 to fill in some research gaps.  By July 1943 he was optimistic about the final project, seeing that a manuscript Jones had prepared from the sociological side of the house would nicely compliment his own musicological take.


But the final work did not come to fruition in its time.  Without Lomax’s involvement, the Library was indifferent at best to Work’s manuscript.  None of the findings Work, Jones and the others uncovered was published.  In fact, the Library claimed to not have a copy of the manuscript, which Work thought the president of Fisk had hand-delivered to them.  No one on either end seemed particularly concerned with following through on any of it.  All that work ended up falling through history’s cracks.  The manuscript, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.


The music recorded on the two visits to Coahoma County, of course, was of enormous historical and artistic significance.  Lomax and Work captured not only Waters, but also Son House and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, plus various examples of gospel and folk music, at the moment just before the rural way of life began receding into the past.  The music they recorded, which has seen various forms of commercial release over the years, helped define the Delta in the popular mind as the ancestral home of blues music.  Lomax, in fact, titled his memoir of his field recording days, including the Coahoma County project, The Land Where the Blues Began (Pantheon, 1993).


The book received a National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, and it put an impressive bow on Lomax’s career of documenting and preserving traditional American music.  The importance of his work cannot be overstated.  But his memoir essentially whitewashed the contributions of the Fiskites from one of his most celebrated endeavors. Of the three Fisk principles, Lomax cites only Jones as being a core member of the team.  Adams is not mentioned at all, and John Work rated only a reference that he was there for the Waters recordings. 


Lomax focused on the traditional aspects of the Coahoma County culture, not how it was being defined and expressed in that moment.  He gave greater weight to the uneducated residents than to its more educated folks, thus skewing a picture of the community’s true diversity.  The Fiskites were the one with the academic backgrounds, but by leaving them out of his account, Lomax set himself up as the “expert” on black life.  Readers coming to his memoir would thus have no idea that other people were involved in the groundbreaking excursion, and that their observations and interpretations would paint a much broader picture of black life than Lomax presented.


Once the original research project faded away, Work resumed his teaching career at Fisk, never receiving any accolades for his research before he died in 1967.  His field recordings were released on various Library of Congress issues, but he never got credit for the work. (It doesn’t appear that he did much, if any, field recording after the Coahoma County project.) Many of the original hard copies of his research and interpretations vanished; fortunately, some of his work was preserved on microfilm.  It wouldn’t be until decades later that Work’s career would receive its due respect.


* * *
'Son' Sims

‘Son’ Sims” and “Muddy Water”, Courtesy of the Center for Popular Music

There is something of a delicious irony in that, just as blues record collectors and field researchers brought new light to long-forgotten black rural bluesmen, two researchers helped place Work’s contributions in their proper context long after their time. In 1989, Bruce Nemerov, at the time a working musician and audio engineer, published a paper on Work in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin.  Not exactly the most prominent venue, granted, but at least the story was told.  More than a decade later, Nemerov (by now with the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University) got wind of Gordon’s work researching the Waters bio, and sent him a copy of his paper.  That piqued Gordon’s curiosity; he had heard that there was another guy with Lomax for the 1941 Waters recordings, but further information about him was sketchy.  Acting on Nemerov’s tip, Gordon eventually tracked down the surviving documents of the Coahoma County trip – not only the material pertinent to Waters’ pre-Chicago life and music, but also the correspondence documenting the project itself, from the initial enthusiasm to the confusion and finger pointing at the end. Gordon and Nemerov eventually collected the manuscripts of the study from the various archives and file drawers where its pieces had scattered, and published them as Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University – Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-42 (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005).  Authorship credits were given to Work, Jones and Adams.  Finally, the fullness of the study’s findings, not just Lomax’s romanticizing poor black folk in the South, was done justice. Jones’ contribution is a relatively brief overview of the Delta region’s general history.  He broke down the Delta’s history into three eras, when life was dominated by the river, the railroad and the highway, respectively.  His plans to flesh out his section further were interrupted by his military service, but what survives is rich in detail about the taming of the Delta and the beginning of the cotton-industrial complex, much of it from the recollections of the era’s last remaining survivors. Adams’ section was submitted as part of his masters’ degree work in 1947.  He begins with the most crucial sentences in the entire manuscript:
“Negro life on the plantation is changing.  The transition has been going on for nearly a century, but it has become more pronounced since the turn of the present century and, particularly after World War I. With the South becoming increasingly an integral part of the national economy, the old plantation system is rapidly collapsing.”
Adams found a Delta culture not frozen in time, in contrast to the picture Lomax painted.  His interviews with Delta residents revealed changing attitudes towards religious practices, entertainment and cultural expression.  Mechanization of agricultural work had, for example, rendered the traditional field work song obsolete; folks couldn’t sing above the loud rumble of the tractors.  People worked hard during the week, Adams learned, and went into Clarksdale, the largest city in the county, to socialize.  There, they discovered the hot new music happening in the rest of the country through jukeboxes (in addition, many families had radios); that’s borne out by Jones’ September 1941 survey of titles in Clarksdale jukeboxes, which featured the proto-R&B of Louis Jordan and Lil Green, big bands from Count Basie to Artie Shaw, and even the occasional Bing Crosby or Eddy Duchin side.  Less prevalent, notably, were blues recordings; Blind Boy Fuller and Sonny Boy Williamson II were among several blues notables from the era who showed up only once on Jones’ survey. But it’s Work’s discoveries that have the most enduring value.  He too found a region of way of life in transition, but unlike Lomax, Work did not turn a blind eye to the prospects of change.  Lomax, for example, thought that the spirituals that had been sung for years were the essence of black culture, but Work’s research informed him that:
“In the Delta church of today, with the exception of the Holiness Church, the spirituals are fast disappearing from the service.  In many of the churches they are not sung at all…They are being displaced by types of songs that perform their functions more satisfactorily and more easily…With the introduction of the piano and organ into the other churches, the performance of more conventional hymns and gospel-songs became easier.”
And speaking of making a joyful noise:
“…The Holiness Church has made the spiritual the core of its song-service.  And what a core!  It has intensified the rhythm of our dance bands in their most torrid mode.  The singers’ lusty voices are supplemented by hundreds of hands clapping, stamping of feet, tambourines, guitar, and a style of piano playing which either imitates “boogie-woogie” at its “hottest”—or started it.  Many individuals dance during the singing.  This is not surprising.”
Work goes on to explore work songs, children’s play songs, ballads, and even the instruments most often played.  Here again, Work found himself on the cusp of change: players of fiddles and mandolins, the staples of old-time string band music, were hard to find, while the guitarists were getting their new licks from records, not the folk tradition. He includes more than 130 transcriptions of the field recordings, everything from blues by House and Edwards to ballads to spirituals, and even a sermon complete with call-and-response exhortations.  The work reveals a depth of academic knowledge and cultural understanding that was simply not within Lomax’s ability, and perhaps not within his inclination as well.  Certainly, as a black man in the South back then, Work could more easily establish a rapport with plantation residents wary of outsiders than a white guy like Lomax.  But beyond that, Lomax settled for generalities that agreed with his own preconceptions, while Work dug deep into the particulars of what he found and offered learned, cogent explanations. Work and Lomax were clearly looking for different things, and this distinction is probably where the difficulties with the project hinged.  Lomax was expecting to see black folk isolated in the past and oblivious to modernity, while Work and the other Fiskites wanted to see black life as it was, and made full documentation of blacks shedding their old skins and stepping into an uncertain future. Lost Delta Found tells us more about that moment in black American life than virtually any work published about the era, music-related or otherwise.  It centers on Work’s research, of course, but the context provided by Jones and Adams is crucial to appreciating what Work accomplished.  But there’s one thing the book doesn’t tell us.  In their recounting of the study’s backstory, Gordon and Nemerov refer to audio samples of 24 folk musicians Work recorded in various locales during 1939 and 1940. Whatever happened to them?

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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