[JPL] Adding Notes to a Folklorist ¹ s Tunes

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December 2, 2007
MUSIC
Adding Notes to a Folklorist¹s Tunes

By BILL FRISKICS-WARREN
NASHVILLE

TWO years ago, the book ³Lost Delta Found² 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
³Recording Black Culture,² 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
³Recording Black Culture,² 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 ¹n¹ roll.

Robert Gordon, who edited ³Lost Delta Found² with Bruce Nemerov, cites the
hot, driving piano on Mr. Work¹s recording of a group of Primitive Baptist
women singing a song called ³I Am His, He Is Mine² as an example.

³There¹s nascent boogie-woogie in that music,² 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. ³That piano
would have made many loyal churchgoers angry: a harbinger of the response to
R&B and rock ¹n¹ roll.²

The pressing harmonic and rhythmic interplay of the Heavenly Gate Quartet
singing ³If I Had My Way² offers further evidence of this evolution. The
heavy syncopation heard there and in Mr. Work¹s recording of the Fairfield
Four¹s ³Walk Around in Dry Bones² 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 isn¹t 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., ³Recording
Black Culture² demonstrates not only Mr. Work¹s 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 ¹n¹ 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 school¹s
spirituals chorus, the Jubilee Singers. His son John Work IV recalled that
his father, who died in 1967, was also conversant with jazz.

³I remember Duke Ellington coming to the house on at least three occasions,²
John Work IV wrote in an e-mail message from New York City. ³On one of
these, I am sure that I was a slight embarrassment to my father when Maestro
Ellington went to the piano and played ŒSophisticated Lady¹ and one other
major composition and I could recognize neither.²

Mr. Work¹s expansive grasp of black music was reflected in his approach to
collecting source material. ³Instead 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,² said Evan Hatch, the producer with Mr.
Nemerov of ³Recording Black Culture.² ³He accepted what was indicative of
the culture, as opposed to only going after what he expected or thought
should be there.²

Mr. Work¹s 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. ³Blues had become established,² Mr.
Gordon said, ³and churchgoers began to ask, ŒWhy should the devil get all
the good tunes?¹²

Mr. Lomax also seemed preoccupied with old work songs at a time when the
cotton fields were becoming mechanized. ³Workers weren¹t just dragging the
big sacks behind them in the fields anymore,² Mr. Nemerov explained. ³Muddy
Waters was a tractor driver.

³But to be fair to the Lomaxes,² he added, referring both to Mr. Lomax and
to his father, the pioneering folklorist John Lomax, ³they were interested
in preserving music that wasn¹t going to be around in 10 years¹ time. You
can¹t 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, ŒOh, look, black people
love to sing ŒGo Down, Moses,¹ when that wasn¹t really the case.²

Racial dynamics at the time might have contributed to the Lomaxes¹ 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.

³Work clearly would have had a rapport with the church singers, especially
with the church hierarchy, being from a religiously based college like
Fisk,² said David Evans, the director of the doctoral program in
ethnomusicology at the University of Memphis. ³There was also the reputation
of the Jubilee Singers. All of that would have given him a kind of in.²

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 warden¹s
bidding. ³Lead Belly of course is an icon of American music, so it¹s not to
be dismissed,² said Mr. Nemerov. ³Nevertheless, the Lomaxes gave America a
very peculiar view of black music. Professor Work¹s recordings give us a
much more balanced view, both in terms of music and social class, of the
black culture of the time.²

Why Mr. Work did not publicize the acetates that have been meticulously
remastered on ³Recording Black Culture² 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.

³Professor Work had big ears,² Mr. Nemerov said. ³The 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.²


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