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John Wesley Work III: Documenting Musical Change

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John Wesley Work III
Folklorist and composer John Wesley Work III.

Folklorist John Wesley Work III lived in an extraordinary time in the development of African American music. He was in college as the Harlem Renaissance began. African American composers were developing traditional blues into elite compositions and the piano became an instrument for new styles such as jazz and boogie-woogie. Work, like his brother Julian, became a composer. But he is far more famous for his work collecting, writing about, and publishing recordings of traditional and emerging African American music.

Work was the third generation of a family with strong interests in music. He was the third John Work in his family to direct a choir, and directed the Fisk University singers as his father had before him. His father, John Work Jr., had been the first African American to collect and publish African American spirituals and inspired Work to collect folksongs as well. [1] What set John Work III apart from the generations before him were the use of sound recording technology and an interest in a wide variety of African American religious and secular musical styles, including those that were new.

 Musical transcription of the folk song, "This Ol Hammer."
Musical transcription of the folksong, “This Ol Hammer,” by John W. Work III.  The Peachite, Vol. II, No. 2, March 1944. Select the link to view the full page.

Work’s interest in African American music of the past was inseparable from his fascination with new emerging styles. For folklorists at the time, this was somewhat unusual, as collectors usually focused on examples of older styles and songs. In 1938 and 1941 he collected songs in various parts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia with the assistance of Harold Schmidt and John Ross and the support of Fisk University. This work led to the collection of folk songs by two of Work’s colleagues, Lewis Wade Jones and Willis James, at the 1943 Fort Valley Folk Music Festival with the support of the Library of Congress. Jones and James made recordings of some of the same singers as had been previously recorded by Work. [2]

Work continued his family tradition of studying traditional African American religious music. At this time Thomas A. Dorsey, the son of a minister, had taken elements of blues and jazz to develop a new musical style called Gospel. Many African American ministers and some congregations objected to bringing secular musical styles into churches, so Gospel was initially controversial. Yet it spread rapidly from one congregation to another. For an example of the change in singing style, listen to “Little David Play on Your Harp,” as sung by the Fisk Jubilee Quartet in 1909, with Work’s father, John Wesley Work Jr., singing the lead. For Work’s father’s generation, this arrangement of religious songs into a quartet style was new. Work collected religious songs sung by a remarkable group of young men, the Holloway High School Quartet of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1940. Their version of “Little David” adds Gospel harmonies to the song.Their rendition of “Daniel Saw the Stone” is even more characteristic of the Gospel style as we know it today, with the addition of falsetto notes in the chorus. At the time many thought that the Gospel style would destroy all trace of spirituals. Work disagreed, as he noted that some spirituals were being recast in this new style.[3] In addition to spirituals and Gospel songs, Work collected African American renditions of shape note hymns, a style that had emerged in white congregations from the singing of scriptures. For example, listen to Work’s recording of “Jubilee,” performed by the Sacred Harp Singers in Ozark, Alabama, in 1938. While shape note singing is still performed today as it was then, some of these hymns were also recast in the Gospel style.

Bus Ezell
Blues artist and composer Bus Ezell performing at the Fort Valley State College Music Festival. From  The Peachite, Vol. II, No. 2, March 1944.

Work also collected many examples of secular songs in various styles. In the late nineteenth century stringed instruments such as guitars, fiddles, and an African American instrument, the banjo, became widely available through mail order catalogs. The availability of these instruments influenced many styles of music in many cultures throughout the United States, including that of African Americans. At the Fort Valley Music Festival, Work made this recording of the Smith Band performing the “Smithy Rag,” a ragtime piece with banjo, bass fiddle, guitar, and an unidentified instrument.[4]  He also recorded Bus Ezell’s version of a popular song, “Are You from Dixie?” by Jack Yellen and George L. Cobb,[5] which Ezell called “Dixie Line.” Work documented Sidney Stripling singing a song he called “Standing on a Corner Smoking a Cheap Cigar,” which seems to be a variant of a folk ballad of a hobo’s life, “Danville Girl” (that is, it has some lines in common and is on the same theme, but the verses are different). He recorded many examples of blues, such as “Po’ Boy a Long Way from Home,” sung and played on guitar by Sonny Chestain. The style of guitar playing in this recording was new among the blues styles of the early twentieth century, influenced by the introduction of slide guitar in recordings of Hawaiian performers and also related to the African American single-stringed slide instrument, the diddley bow. The piano was a fairly new addition to African American music at the time, and thought to be an instrument for sophisticated music, as the piano was an expensive instrument. Work recorded an example of blues piano, “My Fat Hipted Mamma,” played by Charles Ellis.

From these examples it is clear that Work’s documentation of African American music provides us with a look at the rich array of songs and musical styles occurring at the time of his collecting efforts. Of the opposition of many African American ministers to the introduction of Gospel to services Work wrote, “… this type of folk music will continue to be used and even enjoy a greater popularity in time to come. The folk felt a stirring for a new music. They are busy creating it.” [6] The same may be said for many of the other musical styles-in-the-making that Work documented.


  1. Work, John, Jr., 1915. “Folk Song of the American Negro.”
  2. About the collection, in “Now What A Time”: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley State College Folk Festivals.
  3. Work, John W., III, 1949. “Changing Patterns in Negro Folksongs,” Journal of American Foklore, vol. 62, no. 244, 136-144.
  4. In his notes on this recording, Work only listed the banjo, guitar, and bass fiddle. Since he did not mention the instrument that is dominant in the melody, what sounds like a muted trumpet or a kazoo may actually be the vocal technique called a “mouth trumpet”; using only the mouth or using the hands against the mouth to make a trumpet-like sound.
  5. See the sheet music of the original song, “Are You from Dixie?” by Jack Yellen and George L. Cobb.
  6. Work, John W., III, 1949. “Changing Patterns in Negro Folksongs,” Journal of American Foklore, vol. 62, no. 244, 136-144, p. 144.



  1. Just two perhaps three days ago I began to research the names Trevor Jones and Trent Reznor. Indeed while both these modern day musician have little in common with this subject the research I began does resign- ate with my tendency to delve into the past where I enhance my understanding of cultural aspects of my life.

    One source of fascination with aspects of Country,and R&B as well as them impact spirituals have had on those genres is Oxford American Magazine. Thanks for scratching my itch.

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