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| posted on 12/7/2007 at 02:45 PM|
John Work: A folklorist's window into 1940s black music
By Bill Friskics-Warren
Thursday, December 6, 2007
NASHVILLE: 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.
Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, 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 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 Gordon, who has also written a biography of the blues singer Muddy Waters, whom Work and Lomax recorded on their trip to Coahoma County, Mississippi, 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 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.
"If I Had My Way" by the Heavenly Gate Quartet (mp3) - http://graphics8.nytimes.com/audiosrc/arts/myway.mp3
"I Am His, He Is Mine" by members of Zema Hill's Church (mp3) - http://graphics8.nytimes.com/audiosrc/arts/heismine.mp3
"Walk Around in Dry Bones" by the Fairfield Four (mp3) - http://graphics8.nytimes.com/audiosrc/arts/bones.mp3
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. 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, Tennessee, "Recording Black Culture" demonstrates not only 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), 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."
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 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."
Work's method of documenting the music proved a corrective to the sometimes romantic approach of 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," Gordon said, "and churchgoers began to ask, 'Why should the devil get all the good tunes?'"
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," Nemerov explained. "Muddy Waters was a tractor driver.
"But to be fair to the Lomaxes," he added, referring both to 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, 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 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 Work did not publicize the acetates that have been meticulously remastered on "Recording Black Culture" remains unclear. When 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 Work.
Some of the recordings that he had made with Lomax, largely the work songs and spirituals favored by 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," 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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| posted on 12/7/2007 at 02:53 PM|
|Thanks for sharing this, Derek! You always offer up the most interesting articles! Grazie! |
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