As readers of my efforts over the years may remember, doing field work may seem romantic from one’s armchair, but in actuality, it’s a bitch. Today one’s modus operandi has changed and it involves much internet trolling and access to census records, birth and death certificates, and other markers strewn along the way of an individuals life. To sound like an old fart, back in my day one spent a lot of time driving, a lot of money on gas/petrol, and a decent percentage of the time having doors slammed in one’s face. Such information was NOT freely available to non-relatives and I have always been and always will be White. It took dogged determination, a diminished sensitivity towards “others” (but not for the folks you were looking for), a certain degree of knowledge, and a willingness to listen without prejudice. That was in the 70’s. Imagine how much more difficult it would be in the 40’s… without a car (mainly) like John W. Work, III, or as an outsider/insider with wheels such as Alan Lomax or George Mitchell (both Southerners), or a sort of semi-insider like Gayle Dean Wardlow (in MS), or a complete outsider such as myself, Bastin, or Axel Küstner. In most cases, there was little to no outside financial support; it was work driven by the love of the music and its makers. The life of an active field-working folklorist is no bed of roses and can be soul-destroying at worst – I myself eventually burned out.
John W. Work III, as we all probably know, was one of a long line of John W. Works who taught at Fisk College in Nashville, TN. He had his 1930 Columbia University Masters’ Thesis published as AMERICAN NEGRO SONGS: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular in 1940 in NYC. Work basically was yet another folklorist who ran on the smell of an oily rag with minimal financial support from universities or agencies. He recorded as best he could on inexpensive disc recorders that he purchased. Dr. Work did much of his activity within the Nashville region and had great success with small numbers of recordings done… he had to budget! He also went to Fort Valley, GA by train in 1941 to be one of the judges at the festival contests and record some of the contestants for the LofC.
Recently my family moved house, a traumatic experience at best. One of the side effects was opening boxes that had been sealed for over six years. One of my discoveries was a CD of recoded material that John Work kept for his own personal use as a writer and teacher. The CD was released under the aegis of the Arts Center of Cannon County (TN) and has some very lovely material that includes one grand blues performance. Additionally, I picked up a re-print copy of Work’s book and found much of what he said in print to be worthy. So here we go:
JOHN WORK, III Recording Black Culture Spring Fed SFR – 104
This is not a spanking new release, but it’s terribly worthwhile and important to alert you all to its presence. When I made mention of it to the Editor he wrote “Never heard of it.” But then his follow-up message was, ”We don’t review anything that is not current”. That produced a conundrum for me as it’s a CD of material that was recorded in the 40’s by one of the VERY few African American folklorists in existence. (Name another one besides Zora Neale Hurston!!) And how does one interpret “current”. Is it date of recording? Then it ain’t current, because they are from the late 1930’s/early 1940’s. Is it date of release? 2007 has been a while ago now, I admit. Is it important to know about? Yes, absolutely. Is it older material that we don’t know about. Most assuredly – nine out of fourteen cuts on the CD are not in Godrich & Dixon (&Rye)*. My copies of B&R are still in boxes, so I do not know if updates have been published in those hallowed pages!
I feel that it is a worthy item to tell you about, for there were hardly any Blacks, academic or otherwise, (besides those who bought blues records back in the day) who gave a shit about such material. THE COLORED SACRED HARP?** Nope. Work songs? Nope again. Quartets? Maybe. Congregational singing? Hardly. Old-time social songs? Get real. Blues? Maybe, but the fine example here is of borderline interest regarding popularity on a widespread basis. In spite of all that, I boldly go where no one has gone before!!!??? This is a lovely production of wonderful music (see below) well-packaged that all should hear. It should also be noted that this album deservedly won a Grammy ca. 2007 for its historical liner essay by Bruce Nemerov! Worthy.
* As listed: all Nashville, TN region, unless other location indicated.
Social Songs: [May 1941]
Poor Black Sheep – Nathaniel “Ned” Frazer (vo/bjo) & Frank Patterson vo/vln) Texas Traveler – same
“Daniel Saw the Stone” – Holloway High School Quartet [Mar 1942] “Shine on Me” – un-named quartet [1938?] “I Am His, He Is Mine” – unknown female quartet from Zema Hill’s church [mid-40’s?] “Walk Around in Dry Bones” – The Fairfield Four; Sam McCrary (1st ten), John Battle, George Gracy (ten), Harold Carruthers (bar), Rufus Carruthers (bs) [unk date] “If I Had My Way” – Heavenly Gate Quartet; Charles Wilson (lead), Woodrow Campbell (ten), Leroy Smith (bar), William Leftwich (bs) [May 1941?]
Work Song: Beaufort, SC
“My Captain’s Angry” – Al Washington [Aug, 1941]
“ Egypt Land” – un-named leader and congregation [late 1941?] “Since I Laid My Burden Down” – un-named congregation and leader [late 1941]
“Amazing Grace” – Elder Gray & the Pulaski Prayer Society [1940/41]
“Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’” – Joe Holmes (vo/gtr) Macon, GA [spring 1941] Interview with Muddy Waters 
Colored Sacred Harp: Houston Co., AL
“Great God Attend” – Houston County singing convention [Nov 28, 1938]
** see: BOYD, Joe Dan (2002) Judge Jackson and The Colored Sacred Harp. Alabama Folklife Association. A brilliant book on this historical and current subject, with a CD of examples.
PETER B. LOWRY