[7 August 2008]
“The chief purpose of this program is to present for your enjoyment some of the highly interesting folklore in our immediate community and to establish the thesis that in each of your communities there is an abundance of significant folklore of which you have been generally unaware but which can easily be discovered usually and made available for the community’s appreciation and education. If a title for this program were necessary it would be – ‘The Beautiful Music All Around You.’”
—John Work III, introduction to Folklore Program at Fisk University’s 75th anniversary celebration, 1941
John Wesley Work III was a voracious and careful listener and student of music, able to analyze different styles and discuss their components and qualities with learned insight and sensitivity. Fortunately for us, nearly 70 years after the fact, he not only paid close attention to the music, but also lugged around a bulky tape recorder to capture it as it happened.
He didn’t capture it from professional musicians in studio conditions, making records for commercial release. Work went directly to the source: church congregations, amateur singing groups, a street musician at a bus stop, a work crew on a back road. Most of the people he recorded would not go on to any measure of broader renown, but he wasn’t looking for the next big star. He was trying to understand the music of a people in a specific place and time, the South of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. He ended up recording, quite literally, the soundtrack of people’s lives.
As it happens, he recorded something else too: the earliest stirrings of much of the music we’ve enjoyed since World War II. In the late ‘30s, there were only a few major record labels, and they were primarily concerned with recording the pop and jazz stars of the era, from Duke Ellington to Bing Crosby. Decca and Bluebird paid more attention to black blues and gospel than larger players like Victor and Columbia, but record labels’ interest in recording rural music had fallen off when the Depression hit and didn’t recover to the same level once times got a little less hard.
After WWII, black pop and gospel took off in a thousand different directions, and a bevy of nimble indie labels (Savoy, Imperial, Chess, Atlantic, Duke, Modern – the list goes on) moved in quickly to seize the moment and the market. To many folks, it seemed that this new music, moving faster and rocking harder than the pre-war sounds, was a response to pent-up frustration, an expression of anticipation in the new post-war America. It seemed to come from out of nowhere, a giant leap forward from the main trends of just a few years earlier, as if someone had flicked a switch and started the modern age. Actually, the new sounds had deep roots, and Work’s field recordings provide clear evidence.
But Work wasn’t looking for the future; he was out to capture the present. He just happened to be doing it when black music and culture were on the verge of a major transition. It shouldn’t be taken that he was present at the creation of something specific, like the proto-bebop jam sessions recorded at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early ‘40s. Rather, the recordings he made reveal music in a constant state of fluidity and evolution, always being shaped by the innovations and desires of its creators and audiences. We’re not any closer to hearing some mythical “a-ha!” moment when history pivoted on a dime, but it’s highly possible that such a moment doesn’t really exist. Work’s recordings, and the context in which he and his associates cast them, instead help fill in some gaps in our knowledge of black music’s chronology, and indicate further how the music fits into the broader cultural picture.
The most remarkable thing about his recordings is that until a few years ago, hardly anyone knew they existed. For that matter, Work himself was, for a large swath of time, pretty much excluded from history.
The study of black music at Nashville’s Fisk University was very much the Work family’s business. John Work’s grandfather, John Wesley Work, organized a choir at a church in Nashville that produced future members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. His father and uncle attended Fisk; John Wesley Work II ended up teaching there, organizing a late-1890s incarnation of the Singers and leading a male quartet for some recording sessions in the 1910s. He also published Folk Song of the American Negro (1915), a study centered on spirituals that also pulled African traditions and American migration patterns into its mix. When he collapsed and died in 1925, his wife (a decent alto singer who had studied at Fisk) was asked to come to Fisk to train singers. When she died of a stroke while on tour in 1928, John Work III, who had been studying at what is now Juilliard, was asked to take over his mother’s appointment, and joined the Fisk faculty to teach composition.
A 1932 fellowship at Yale set the table for Work’s later field research into black music and culture. He became a keen observer of black folk music, its structure, and its role in community life. In time, his work was less focused on the classroom and more on the field; while he continued to teach, he became increasingly fascinated with how black music (sacred music mostly, but he was also interested in string band music and respectful of blues music) was adapting to changing times. That meant hitting the road with Fisk’s bulky field recording machine, and buying cheap blank discs to capture what he discovered.
Fisk was an especially convenient place for Work to have as a base of operations. He could travel from there throughout the South, studying and taking note of the various musical styles from place to place. Fisk also trained black teachers, and Work picked up useful leads on research opportunities from teachers in rural communities during the summers he taught music education.
While song collectors and field recorders had been traipsing throughout the back roads for years taking note of black folk music, Work was the only one who had a musical pedigree. He was also, for all intents and purposes, the only black person doing such work. These factors separated him from the others in three ways. He understood the milieu of the musicians he met and interviewed. He was able to get deep into the community, and engage the trust of his subjects, in a way that white researchers couldn’t. And he could make transcriptions of the music, and break down their distinctive compositional characteristics. (See Retelling the History of Black Music: Everything You Know about the Blues Is Wrong for more on folk music researchers and collectors.)
He made his first actual field recording in 1938, of Sacred Harp, or shape-note singing in Alabama. Over the next few years he would record several examples of gospel, blues and folk music throughout the South. Of all his field excursions, one became part of American music legend. Yet Work, who initiated the wide-ranging project, didn’t get full credit for his involvement until more than half a century later.
Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers photo from Alabama Arts Center
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.
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” and “Muddy Water”, Courtesy of the Center for Popular Music
“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?
Photo from Boogie McCain.com
As stated earlier, Work provided most of the Coahoma County field recordings to the Library of Congress, at Lomax’s insistence. Work also handed over recordings made at a folk festival in Georgia before the Delta study. But Work kept some of the good stuff for himself.
Work had amassed a collection of field recordings of black music from his own professional and personal trips throughout the South. Evidence suggests that he may have played some of those recordings for his Fisk classes and house guests from time to time. But they never received a public airing or official release. How those recordings survived the years is something close to miraculous: they were never stored with preservation in mind, and much of the other documentation of Work’s research disappeared over time. But they did survive, and now we all can get an idea of the music Work found most fascinating.
The CD Recording Black Culture, credited to John Work, III, was released last fall by Spring Fed Records, a folk music label based in Woodbury, Tennessee. It collects 13 recordings from Work’s personal stash, plus a snippet of one of the Muddy Waters interviews Work and Lomax conducted in 1941. Most of the music was recorded between 1938 and 1942, and none of it was performed by professionals. From the distance of time, the variety and vitality of these performances may surprise listeners who may be conditioned to expect something, well, older-sounding, rustic and primitive. To be sure, there’s music here that we just don’t hear anymore, like the South Carolina work crew and the Alabama Sacred Harp singers. But the music clearly doesn’t sound old-fashioned by the era’s own standards. There are copious amounts of swing and joie de vivre in these spirited performances. Further, they sound surprisingly familiar at their core, implying that the musical distance between then and now is a lot shorter than previously thought.
The five recordings of gospel quartets offer captivating proof. “Daniel Saw the Stone”, performed by a Holloway, Tennessee high school quartet, alternates between tight harmony singing on the choruses and bridges where the lead tenor floats above the others singing “the Lo-ord” in the background. Gospel quartets were already popular around this time, thanks to nationally known groups like the Golden Gate Quartet; tracks like this suggest where doo-wop emerged from a decade or so later. The singing is more enthusiastic than polished on “I Am His, He Is Mine”, recorded at a Nashville church, but that wasn’t the main attraction: here it’s the driving piano, instantly familiar to anyone who’s heard attended a black church service at any point in the last 70-odd years, that captures the ear (and audiences at the time, who apparently flocked to the church to hear the bold new style).
The Fairfield Four give a marvelous rendition of “Walk Around in Dry Bones” shortly before their breakthrough to the big time of national radio. Work had recorded a previous performance by the group as part of a 1941 church service; those were among the discs that ended up at the Library of Congress thanks to Lomax. Work must have sensed he had something special in the Four, for he recorded this track later on and held on to it for himself.
Despite the importance of the Waters field recordings, Work wasn’t particularly interested in blues music. But he knew the good stuff when he heard it, as he did one day in 1941 while waiting for a bus in Macon, Georgia on the way to a music festival, recording machine in tow. He heard a guy named Joe Holmes singing and playing further down the platform, conducted an on-the-spot field interview with him, and recorded “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’”, a splendid performance reminiscent of Robert Johnson – and quite likely the only time Holmes ever recorded.
That factoid helps explain the magical qualities of this CD. It’s an informal window into a world where music was everywhere, not as the products of a commercial industry so much as a part of people’s lives. One can hear tradition being upheld in one beat, and stretched into something different and exciting in the next. The closeness of Work’s recordings, made clearer by painstaking remastering from the fragile source discs, reveal nuances in their on-site recordings that would not have naturally existed in a studio setting: a congregation’s call-and-response, the sound of a work crew’s tools hitting the ground on cue. Beyond what’s available through the Library, the music here captures what Work was most interested in documenting: the sophisticated artistry encoded within black vernacular music, and the contexts in which the music thrived. Certainly the singers and players deserve their due, but it’s Work’s knowledge, sensitivity and interpretive skills that take center stage.
Lost Delta Found may have reclaimed Work’s mission from obscurity—teaching us much more about the South than we thought we knew in the process – but this CD brings his passions and contributions back to life in vivid dimensions. It isn’t precisely the book’s soundtrack (many of Work’s Coahoma County recordings are available through the Library and other sources), but it provides a sense of how those days sounded, and of what Work considered important about those sounds. It’s not a total stretch to consider Recording Black Culture as John Work III’s greatest hits.
So now we know a little bit more about how black music navigated the middle of the 20th century. An important figure and his story are back in circulation, and some clearer lines have been drawn to connect the past to the present. Further, a door has been opened for further research and exploration into the sounds that were happening just before WWII, a pivotal moment for black music and black life as a whole. It’s evident that while the pop music world was in the mood for stomping at the Savoy and taking the A train, there was a whole lot of music happening on the margins, in the church pews and on the street corners. Musicians of every pedigree, from pure amateurs to future stars, took in the influence of the current styles, built upon them, and helped set the stage for what was to come.
John Wesley Work III
But that knowledge doesn’t bring us any closer to knowing precisely where the story of black music begins. The music John Work III captured may sound to the ringtone generation like it’s coming from some other dimension, but for all its historical value, it still takes place a good 20 years after the first blues records. The music itself dates back even further than that. How far, and to where? Is there a clear and singular point from which everything from Duke Ellington to the Fairfield Four to the Carolina Chocolate Drops can be said to descend? Probably not, at least not that we’re likely to ever discover short of something miraculous. But we can pinpoint the historical era when black music, and by extension black pop culture, first gathered the attention of a broader audience and started changing the course of American mass entertainment. We’ll likely never know when someone played a blues chord for the very first time, but we can speak with confidence of the first black musical star of the modern world.Watch for the next installment of Retelling the History of Black Music: Bert Williams, Original Gangsta