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Fisk researchers' roles in legendary field recordings revived with new exhibit

Fisk researchers' roles in legendary field recordings revived with new exhibit

When people say John Work III had "big ears," they're not being unkind.
Work, who died in 1967 at age 65, had a gift for finding and collecting black folk music. He traveled the South recording blues singers, work songs, ballads, church choirs, dance tunes, whatever struck him as showing the evolution of black music.
And yet what might be his greatest achievement went largely unnoticed for 60 years, stashed in a file cabinet at Hunter College in New York.
Now, with the opening of a new exhibit on Work's life at Fisk University and a companion CD, some say Work is finally getting his due.
"He was seeking out music that many African-American academics at the time had no use for," said Evan Hatch, a professional folklorist who helped compile the Fisk exhibit, "The Beautiful Music that Surrounds You," which runs through May 11.
A classically trained musician and composer, Work taught at Fisk University, a black college founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves. He also directed the school's famed Jubilee Singers and ran its music department.
He came from a family of musicians and scholars (his father, John W. Work Jr., wrote the lyrics to the popular black spiritual "Go Tell It On the Mountain"), but unlike his family and some black academics of his day, he embraced secular music as worthy of study.
"To him, this raw, ragged music was as valid as Mozart," said Bruce Nemerov, who teamed with Hatch to co-produce "John Work, III: Recording Black Culture," a CD of Work's field recordings released last year. Nemerov, a former audio specialist at Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Popular Music, also wrote the disc's Grammy-winning liner notes.
Work did most of his folk collecting on his own time and at his own expense. He had an exceptional ear and could transcribe into musical notation tunes he heard whistled on the street. Once, while waiting at a train station in Macon, Georgia, he heard a man singing on the platform and captured an original lyrical blues called "Ain't Gonna Drink No Mo'."
"It was a passion of his. I can remember growing up and having various groups come into the home to sing for him," recalled his son, Frederick T. Work, an attorney in Gary, Indiana. "He also went to Haiti and spent what seemed an eternity to us as boys. I think he spent an entire summer there researching and collecting native music from Haiti. I've often wondered if his direction was to try to follow music from Africa as it came to the United States. I'm not certain if that was the case, but I strongly suspect it was."
Work was already an established composer when he and two other Fisk researchers _ sociologist Lewis Wade Jones and graduate student Samuel C. Adams Jr. _ joined the renowned folklorist Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress for a field study of the Mississippi Delta in 1941 and '42.
The men focused 70 miles (113 kilometers) south of Memphis on Mississippi's Coahoma County, where they gathered data on everything from automobile ownership to jukebox selections. But their greatest contribution would be to popular music. They collected over 150 songs, including early recordings by future blues greats Son House and Muddy Waters.
"They sent those musicians on a professional path," Hatch said. Indeed, Waters would soon head to Chicago where he switched to electric guitar and left a huge mark on blues and rock music. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 17 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004.
The Coahoma County findings were to be published jointly by Fisk University and the Library of Congress, but Work's manuscripts along with those of Jones and Adams were inexplicably lost or misplaced in Washington. Most of what was known of the landmark study came from Lomax's papers and his 1993 memoir "The Land Where the Blues Began."
"It's kind of a romantic view of everything," Nemerov said of the book. "If all we had was Lomax's view of black culture of the 1930s and '40s ... we would think that the only black music was in prisons or cotton fields being sung by black people oppressed by cruel white plantation owners."
While working on a biography of Waters in the late '90s, author Robert Gordon found most of the lost manuscripts in a file cabinet at the Alan Lomax Archive in New York. He and Nemerov edited them for a 2005 book, "Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942." The book contains Work's transcriptions as well as the three men's narratives about the Delta.
In the preface, Gordon said the information compiled by the black researchers _ as opposed to Lomax, who was white _ was like "finding old pictures of someone you've always known. The pictures reveal new aspects of an old friend, a deeper sense of dimension."
For one thing, Nemerov said it showed that the black spirituals that occupy a large part of Lomax's findings were already a dying art form in the churches, replaced by conventional hymns and gospel tunes.
"Lomax was fixated on spirituals as being extremely valuable. But Work was interested in what was going on right now," Nemerov said. "He'd go to a church and record what was happening that Sunday. Lomax would ask people to stay after church and sing the spirituals they remembered."
The Fisk exhibit features Work's compositions and papers, while the CD reflects the folk music that inspired him.
The disc includes a brief interview Work did with a young Waters in Coahoma County. In those days the bluesman played acoustic guitar and went by Muddy Water _ without the "s."
"Name is McKinley Morganfield, nickname Muddy Water. Stovall's famous guitar picker," he proclaims.
"Who made up the 'Burr Clover Blues'?" Work asks him.
"Muddy Water."
"You made it up all by yourself?"
"All by myself. Sun Sims and myself."
"How did you get the verses to grow up, develop your verses?"
"Well, we just got together on our verses and one tracks in another verse and one writes one 'til we made up the whole song."
And so it went, one man on his way to pushing the blues in new directions and another intent on capturing it just as it was.
While Waters would hit his stride a decade later, Work's legacy is only now being fully realized.
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On the Net:
http://www.fisk.edu


Updated : 2021-09-17 10:00 GMT+08:00