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John W. Work III and the blues

Desert Dancer 07 Feb 12 - 11:31 AM
Desert Dancer 07 Feb 12 - 11:35 AM
Desert Dancer 07 Feb 12 - 11:50 AM
Desert Dancer 07 Feb 12 - 11:51 AM
Desert Dancer 07 Feb 12 - 12:32 PM
wysiwyg 07 Feb 12 - 02:05 PM
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Subject: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 11:31 AM

Ms. Azizi looked in on the Alan Lomax Archive going online thread to say, "I consider it to be very troubling that Alan Lomax never credited John W. Work III, his African American partner and guide in the collection of Delta Blues in the early 1940s."

John W. Work, III, was a composer, educator, choral director, and ethnomusicologist who taught at Fisk University.

She's got a post on her cultural blog, Pancocojams, that has a good introduction and link to several other articles: Remembering & Honoring John Wesley Work III.

There is a now a John W. Work III Memorial Foundation, formed to:

- Assist in the preservation, protection, and promotion of all manuscripts and/or works, both published and unpublished of the late composer, John W. Work, III;
-   Memorialize and preserve the memory of John W. Work, III;
-   Promote research and training in black musicology; and
-   Present awards and scholarships to worthy musicologists, composers, performers, and/or students for the purpose of futhering their labors in the field of musicology, composition, and or performance especially African Americans in the field of music.

Work's book, American Negro Songs and Spirituals (1960) is often cited as a source here at Mudcat.

In 2011, he was inducted into The Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. They describe "noted African American educator, John W. Work, III whose ground-breaking work in the blues was not appreciated until long after his death".

Azizi links a review of the 2010 biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, by John Szwed, in the Guardian about this missing inforamtion:
More damning still is the more recent discovery that Lomax appropriated research done by the likes of the black scholar John W Work, who was his conduit to pioneering blues artists like Muddy Waters and Son House. "Sometime soon," Marsh [described earlier as "the combative American music critic"] concluded, "we need to figure out why it is that, when it comes to cultures like those of Mississippi black people, we celebrate the milkman more than the milk."

(I posted the full text of the Guardian article here in the Mudcat thread on the biography.)

More light, I say.

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 11:35 AM

I think it's worth copying this from the John W. Work III Memorial Foundation website here:

About John W. Work, III

(1901 - 1967)

Composer, educator, choral director, and ethnomusicologist John Wesley Work, III was born on June 15, 1901, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, to a family of professional musicians. His grandfather, John Wesley Work, was a church choir director in Nashville, where he wrote and arranged music for his choirs. Some of his choristers were members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. His father, John Wesley Work Jr., was a singer, folksong collector and professor of music, Latin, and history at Fisk, and his mother, Agnes Haynes Work, was a singer who helped train the Fisk group. His uncle, Frederick Jerome Work, also collected and arranged folksongs, and his brother, Julian, became a professional musician and composer.

John Wesley Work, III was an inspiring teacher at Fisk University for 39 years, chairman of the Music Department for a number of years, director of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers®, and an internationally known composer and arranger. He graduated from Fisk University, received an M.A. from the Teachers College of Columbia University, and a B. Mus. from Yale University. In 1960, he was awarded the honorary doctorate from Fisk University. He published more than 50 compositions between 1946 and 1956, including The Singers, based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which received an award from the Fellowship of American Composers at its premiere in Detroit in 1946. His string symphony, Yenvalou, was premiered at the 1946 Saratoga Spring Festival. Golgotha, based on a poem by Arna Bontemps was premiered by the Fisk University Choir at the 1949 Fisk Festival of Music and Art. In 1956, his composition My Lord, What a Morning was performed for the Festival of Music and Art by a chorus comprised of choirs from Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, South America, France, Yugoslavia, Japan, Canada, and the United States. His book, American Negro Songs and Spirituals (1960) contains 230 folk songs, and describes the origin and nature of various types of folk songs.

During the summers of 1941 and 1942, Professor Work, along with Charles S. Johnson, then head of the Fisk Sociology Department (later the University's first black president), and Lewis Jones, also from the Sociology Department, collaborated with the Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Song in a joint field study to record the music of the rapidly urbanizing Coahoma County, Mississippi. Some of the findings have been recently published in the book Lost Delta Found (Vanderbilt UP, 2005) and the album John Work III: Recording Black Culture won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes, 40 years after Dr. Work's death.

John Wesley Work died on May 17, 1967.

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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 11:50 AM

Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 (book) at

'Lost Delta Found:' A Chronicle of Mississippi Music, story with a book excerpt, at NPR

Book Says Alan Lomax Neglected Black Scholars

The New York Times
August 29, 2005

A new book asserts that the American folklorist Alan Lomax gave short shrift to the work of black scholars who accompanied him on now legendary trips to the Mississippi Delta to record seminal blues artists like Muddy Waters.

Lomax's recordings for the Library of Congress, made during his travels through the South in the 1930's and 40's, make up perhaps the greatest repository of American vernacular music ever compiled.

But he was not alone on some of those trips. Three African-American scholars from Fisk University in Nashville, a black college founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves, accompanied him on two pivotal trips to Coahoma County in Mississippi in 1941 and 1942. And they continued to work on the project after Lomax left the Library of Congress. But Lomax, in his critically praised 1993 memoir, "The Land Where the Blues Began" (Pantheon Books), gives the three only a few cursory mentions, one in the acknowledgments. In the memoir, Lomax, who died in 2002, also conflates the two Coahoma County trips into a single trip.

In the new book, "Lost Delta Found" (Vanderbilt University Press), the editors, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov try to set the record straight by publishing the long-forgotten manuscripts of the Fisk scholars: John W. Work III, a composer and musicologist; Lewis Wade Jones, a sociologist; and Samuel C. Adams Jr., a graduate student. Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov say these manuscripts provide a more balanced picture of the Coahoma County research as well as a more nuanced analysis of the Jim Crow South than is to be found in Lomax's memoir.

Published with the three Fisk manuscripts are 158 songs transcribed by Work, ranging from the familiar ("Shoo Fly," "Shortnin' Bread") to the whimsically obscure ("Stuball," "I Am a Funny Little Dutch Girl").

"Work's transcriptions show us that Mississippi wasn't only about the blues," said Mr. Nemerov, a former audio specialist at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, who unearthed about two-thirds of Work's hand-written manuscript at Fisk University in 1989 and wrote about it in The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. "There are children's songs and other social songs that serve no purpose other than for neighbors to entertain each other."

According to "Lost Delta Found," it was Work, the leader of the Fisk research team, who initiated the Mississippi study when he applied to the Library of Congress for money to support a recording trip to Natchez. Alerted to Work's interest in Southern vernacular music, Lomax, who ran the library's Archive of American Song, entered the picture and, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov say, diverted the project to Coahoma. Once the team arrived in Coahoma, they were told of a blues singer who worked as a farmhand on Col. Howard Stovall's plantation. That farmhand turned out to be McKinley Morganfield, a k a Muddy Waters.

Lomax wrote extensively of the Coahoma Country trips in "The Land Where the Blues Began," published long after the fact, but the research was supposed to have been jointly published some five decades earlier by Fisk University and the Library of Congress. The Fisk scholars' manuscripts were somehow lost after they were sent to the Library of Congress in 1943 by Work, who died in 1967, and have been published for the first time in "Lost Delta Found."

"Lost Delta Found" is an outgrowth of Mr. Gordon's research for his 2002 biography "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters" (Little, Brown). Tipped off in the late 1990's by Mr. Nemerov to Work's contributions, Mr. Gordon sifted through Lomax's vast archive at Hunter College in New York, where, after much burrowing, he found a manuscript stuffed in the back of a file cabinet in a powder-blue cover with Lewis Wade Jones's name on it. Also written on the cover were the words "Property of Fisk University." When Mr. Gordon matched up the document to the incomplete, hand-written manuscript that Mr. Nemerov had unearthed, he knew he had discovered a significant contribution to Southern folkloric scholarship.

The document was a revelation to Mr. Gordon, describing in vivid detail the ways Coahoma County's residents worked, played and practiced religion. He said Work's manuscript, in particular, is a crucial primer on the region's musical practices, from sermons to children's songs - his careful academic analysis leavened with interviews with the county's citizens.

"To me, Work is important because he's an academic who sees the value of homegrown, vernacular material," Mr. Gordon said. "Most academics were ashamed of that."

Work went into the Coahoma County project with an open mind, Mr. Gordon added. Unlike Lomax, Work took note of well-spoken blacks who owned land, and the fact that spirituals were already on the wane in certain parts of Mississippi - both of which ran counter to Lomax's assumptions about the Southern black man, Mr. Gordon said.

"That's the biggest difference between Work's assessment of the South and Lomax's evaluations in his own book," Mr. Gordon said. "One documented what was there, the other focused on what he'd expected to find. Lomax was disappointed to discover that blacks owned land, because it didn't conform to his vision of the South."

According to the book, Lomax used a photograph of a sharecropper's cabin in his book without giving proper credit to Work. The picture was found in the manuscript of Mr. Adams, the Fisk graduate student. Asked to comment on "Lost Delta Found," Ellen Harold, an editor and translator at the Alan Lomax Archive at Hunter College and Mr. Lomax's niece, said, "I feel the book makes claims and innuendoes that are ridiculous."

"Work wasn't neglected," she added. "Perhaps he would have been a greater folklorist had he had more support. But he had a tenured position at Fisk as chairman of the music department, and Alan never had an academic position. I just don't see him as much of a victim. Gordon and Nemerov claim that Alan used a photograph of Work's that wasn't credited, but I don't see how they can say with certainty that it was Work's."

Ms. Harold said she believed that Work had a copy of the manuscript all along, but never bothered to have it published. "My sense is that Work wasn't the most organized person," she said. "He requested the manuscript from the Library of Congress in 1958, and the correspondence from the Library doesn't indicate in any way that the manuscript had been lost or misplaced. He had 20 years to write about the project; he just never did."

Ms. Harold said she did not know how the Fisk manuscript wound up in Mr. Lomax's archive.

Regardless of the murky circumstances surrounding the mysterious loss and re-appearance of the Fisk research, Mr. Gordon said he hoped that "Lost Delta Found" would draw people to Work's scholarship.

"It's really beautiful work," said Mr. Gordon, "and there's a lot more of it." Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov would like to publish a second volume of Work's essays and speeches.

As for Lomax and his legacy, Mr. Gordon is of two minds.

"I still believe that Lomax was a great folklorist," Mr. Gordon said. "But I do wonder why he had so much trouble acknowledging his peers, especially given the fact that they were African-American. Why would he miss that opportunity?"

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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 11:51 AM

John Work III: Recording Black Culture (cd) at

Adding Notes to a Folklorist's Tunes

The New York Times
December 2, 2007


TWO years ago, the book "Lost Delta Found" criticized the American folklorist Alan Lomax for giving short shrift to the work of three black researchers with whom he made some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s. Maybe more important, the book argued that our appreciation of the black roots music of the era would have been greatly enriched had the writings of the researchers reached a wider audience. With the release of "Recording Black Culture," an album consisting largely of newly unearthed acetates made by one of the collectors, John Work III, we now have the music itself to buttress this claim.

Mr. Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Mr. Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Mr. Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Mr. Work sought to document it as it was unfolding. Thus on "Recording Black Culture," instead of spirituals harking back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what soon would become rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll.

Robert Gordon, who edited "Lost Delta Found" with Bruce Nemerov, cites the hot, driving piano on Mr. Work's recording of a group of Primitive Baptist women singing a song called "I Am His, He Is Mine" as an example.

"There's nascent boogie-woogie in that music," said Mr. Gordon, who has also written a biography of the blues singer Muddy Waters, whom Mr. Work and Mr. Lomax recorded on their trip to Coahoma County, Miss., in 1941. "That piano would have made many loyal churchgoers angry: a harbinger of the response to R&B and rock 'n' roll."

The pressing harmonic and rhythmic interplay of the Heavenly Gate Quartet singing "If I Had My Way" offers further evidence of this evolution. The heavy syncopation heard there and in Mr. Work's recording of the Fairfield Four's "Walk Around in Dry Bones" presage doo-wop a good decade before vocal groups like the Clovers and the Coasters would establish it as the soundtrack for young black America in the 1950s.

This isn't to claim Dead Sea Scrolls-like significance for the music on the new CD. Black Americans, though, were making the transition from rural to urban life. Spirituals were being supplanted by music that was more agreeable to black communities in which congregations were buying pianos so they could play the songs of contemporary gospel composers like the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey during worship. Mr. Work was committed to capturing these changes as they were happening rather than after the fact.

Issued by Spring Fed Records, a label based in Woodbury, Tenn., "Recording Black Culture" demonstrates not only Mr. Work's understanding of the dynamic way vernacular music functioned in black culture but also his omnivorous musical appetite. In addition to dramatic examples of gospel singers anticipating rock 'n' roll, the selections include rare recordings ranging from black Sacred Harp singing to the virtuoso banjo playing of Nathan Frazier, performing as half of the banjo-and-fiddle duo Frazier & Patterson.

Classically trained at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (now a part of Juilliard), Mr. Work became a professor of music at Fisk University in Nashville; from 1947 to 1966 he was the director of the school's spirituals chorus, the Jubilee Singers. His son John Work IV recalled that his father, who died in 1967, was also conversant with jazz.

"I remember Duke Ellington coming to the house on at least three occasions," John Work IV wrote in an e-mail message from New York City. "On one of these, I am sure that I was a slight embarrassment to my father when Maestro Ellington went to the piano and played 'Sophisticated Lady' and one other major composition and I could recognize neither."

Mr. Work's expansive grasp of black music was reflected in his approach to collecting source material. "Instead of pigeonholing musicians in terms of what he wanted them to play, Work acted as a fly on the wall and recorded what was there at the moment," said Evan Hatch, the producer with Mr. Nemerov of "Recording Black Culture." "He accepted what was indicative of the culture, as opposed to only going after what he expected or thought should be there."

Mr. Work's method of documenting the music proved a corrective to the sometimes romantic approach of Mr. Lomax, who viewed the spiritual, for example, as the apex of black culture and largely ignored the new sounds emerging from Southern black churches. "Blues had become established," Mr. Gordon said, "and churchgoers began to ask, 'Why should the devil get all the good tunes?'"

Mr. Lomax also seemed preoccupied with old work songs at a time when the cotton fields were becoming mechanized. "Workers weren't just dragging the big sacks behind them in the fields anymore," Mr. Nemerov explained. "Muddy Waters was a tractor driver.

"But to be fair to the Lomaxes," he added, referring both to Mr. Lomax and to his father, the pioneering folklorist John Lomax, "they were interested in preserving music that wasn't going to be around in 10 years' time. You can't fault them for that, but not knowing all the details, modern listeners get a skewed view of what black people liked to sing. Thus you have people listening to this music 20 or 30 years later going, 'Oh, look, black people love to sing 'Go Down, Moses,' when that wasn't really the case."

Racial dynamics at the time might have contributed to the Lomaxes' view of the music. Because of the prevalence of lynchings and Jim Crow laws, many Southern blacks might have been wary of white folklorists from the Northeast. As a black man and a Southerner, Mr. Work would have had a much easier time gaining entree to churches, dances and other social events than would his white counterparts.

"Work clearly would have had a rapport with the church singers, especially with the church hierarchy, being from a religiously based college like Fisk," said David Evans, the director of the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at the University of Memphis. "There was also the reputation of the Jubilee Singers. All of that would have given him a kind of in."

Unable in some cases to gain such access, the Lomaxes turned to the prisons, where inmates like Lead Belly had no choice but to sing at the warden's bidding. "Lead Belly of course is an icon of American music, so it's not to be dismissed," said Mr. Nemerov. "Nevertheless, the Lomaxes gave America a very peculiar view of black music. Professor Work's recordings give us a much more balanced view, both in terms of music and social class, of the black culture of the time."

Why Mr. Work did not publicize the acetates that have been meticulously remastered on "Recording Black Culture" remains unclear. When Mr. Nemerov found the discs in the attic of the Work home near the Fisk campus a few years ago, they appeared to have been played frequently, suggesting that they were dear to Mr. Work.

Some of the recordings that he had made with Mr. Lomax, largely the work songs and spirituals favored by Mr. Lomax, had been deposited in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The rest of the performances, which have gone unheard by the public for the better part of seven decades, give a more expansive view of the black vernacular music of the time.

"Professor Work had big ears," Mr. Nemerov said. "The overarching theme here is just how much music there was in the black community before World War II. It just seemed to be everywhere, and in every layer of black culture, not just in the cotton fields and prisons."

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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 12:32 PM

Anna Lomax Wood's letter in response to the Friskics-Warren article above

Out on Highway 61: critic Dave Marsh in the NY Times on In Search of the Blues (2008) by Mary Hamilton, where he says, "Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax's equal in the study."

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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: wysiwyg
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 02:05 PM

Great work, DD!


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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Bobert
Date: 07 Feb 12 - 02:06 PM

Justy a side note: Alan Lomax, in spite of everything he was able to in preserving country blues and other style of music was somewhat condescending toward black folks... It is very evident on Muddy Waters "Plantation Recordings"...

And from what I have read here and there this is one reason why Lead Belly just couldn't hang for any extended time around either John or Alan...

So this thread doesn't come as any surprise to me...


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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 08 Feb 12 - 11:20 AM


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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
Date: 21 Nov 16 - 10:07 AM

where was John W. Work lll buried?

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Subject: RE: John W. Work III and the blues
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 17 Oct 18 - 09:05 AM

We have "never credited" twice in this thread, and it was false both times.

Alan Lomax was very much about himself. The suggestion that he treated black scholars ungenerously relative to himself is artificial, misleading, and unfair, because he treated other scholars _generally_ ungenerously relative to himself.

"'To me, Work is important because he's an academic who sees the value of homegrown, vernacular material,' Mr. Gordon said. 'Most academics were ashamed of that." Considering that Alan Lomax was very, very interested in homegrown, vernacular material, and Work less so, this promotion for a particular book is rather phony.

"'Work's transcriptions show us that Mississippi wasn't only about the blues,'" Huh?? Alan Lomax recorded lots of non-blues in Mississippi in 1941-1942 and wrote about it.

"Where Mr. Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Mr. Work sought to document it as it was unfolding." A. Lomax's interest in documenting folk for the Archive of American Folk Song was because it was the Archive Of American Folk Song.

"There's nascent boogie-woogie in that music" Nascent -- gee, I thought George W. Thomas was playing boogie-woogie back in 1912, e.g.

"[T]he Lomaxes gave America a very peculiar view of black music." Absolute baloney. As we've discussed on mudcat before, there was a commercial record industry documenting what was in vogue in 1941-1942. That did not need to be documented by fieldworkers, there were dozens of commercial record labels. Pretending that the people who were interesting in documenting folk music before it died were failing to document the kind of music the commercial record companies were documenting anyway, music "as it was unfolding," "the black culture of the time," is a ridiculous supposed point, no matter who brings it up.

"they were interested in preserving music that wasn't going to be around in 10 years' time." Right. "You can't fault them for that...." Right. So don't.

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