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Retelling the History of Black Music: The Beautiful Music All Around John Work III

Image (partial) from 2006 Blues Music Awards poster, May 11, 2006, Memphis, TN

Work recorded the soundtrack of people’s lives, and captured the earliest stirrings of much of the music we’ve enjoyed since World War II.

See also Retelling the History of Black Music: Adventures in Retro-ism and Retelling the History of Black Music: Everything You Know about the Blues Is Wrong

“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

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