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Caught My Ear: The Holloway High School Quartet

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Head and shoulders portrait of an African American man.
John Wesley Work III, the folklorist who recorded the Holloway High School Quartet.

For some time I have been intrigued by the beautiful voices of four young men, singers in the Holloway High School Quartet, recorded by John W. Work III in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1941. To mark African American Heritage Month this year, I thought I would try to find out a little more about them. I have only managed to collect a few facts about their lives. But perhaps writing about them will help call more attention to Zema Richardson, Warren G. Johnson, Anthony Winrow, and Richard Gregory. If you know more that you can share, please reply in the comments.  But first, you should have an opportunity to listen to the three songs found in the American Folklife Center archive.

John W. Work III, an African American folklorist and professor at Fisk University, was interested in African American song in all its varieties, but he had a particular interest in changes in traditional songs that were occurring in the late 1930s and 1940s. Spirituals, which had been adapted to choral singing groups of the sort Work’s father, John W. Work Jr. sang in and directed, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet. There are recordings of this quartet in the Library’s National Jukebox. Listening to “Little David Play on Your Harp,” as they sang it, I hear the influence of the camp meeting style of singing spirituals, translated for quartet voices. So Work III, who, like his father, had experience as a choir director, recorded the Holloway High School Quartet, separated from his father’s quartet by two generations. They also sang “Little David Play on Your Harp”:

Something new was happening. The style of singing sacred songs was being influenced by Thomas Dorsey, a son of a minister who combined blues and jazz sounds with sacred music. This was controversial in the 1930s and 1940s when it began. Jazz and blues had too much of a connection with dance halls and bars and so many African American ministers initially opposed the new sound that we know as Gospel today. But young men like the Holloway High School Quartet couldn’t help but add a bit of swing to the way they sang. Here are the other two songs we have. “The Old Ship of Zion” sounds more in keeping with the earlier tradition. But, to me at least, “Daniel Saw the Stone” as this quartet performs it is not just a song about Daniel’s prophesy, it is a prophesy of the direction where African American sacred music was headed.

When I first listened to these recordings it seemed surprising that these could be high school students. It was one of the reasons that I wanted to learn more about them. It turns out that they were all probably out of high school by the time these recordings were made. Richard Gregory, if I have identified him correctly in the census records, was probably the youngest at 19. Warren G. Johnson had graduated and started his first year of college in 1941. In December 1942 he enlisted in the Army, and so probably served in WWII. Zema Richardson, born in 1920, is the easiest of the singers to track down, with his unusual first name. He left school after 8th grade to work on his family’s farm. He also served in WWII and passed away in 1994. From what I can find, Anthony Winrow seems to have been the oldest of the singers, born in 1915. I think he may have been the son of Anthony Winrow, a farmer, born in 1890: found by his draft registration filled out just before the United States entered World War I. The elder Winrow reported that he had a wife and three children on his draft registration. This matches with the younger Anthony Winrow found in the 1920 census, which shows Anthony and his two brothers living with Joe and Nora Clark, their maternal grandparents, on their farm, where they are also found in the 1930 census. I suspect something very serious happened to Anthony’s parents, as he and his brothers apparently began living with their grandparents during or right after the war, but I have not found any details.

To be a young African American man coming of age just as WWII began was, no doubt, difficult. I wonder if they kept on singing, if Warren G. Johnson was able to continue college after the war, and what the other young men did. We have so few songs by these singers that it is impossible to say much about their repertoire. But I can’t help but think that it is not an accident that these young men sing two songs about young men from the old testament: David, a shepherd boy who played his harp to relieve King Saul and began his journey to become king himself, and Daniel, who dared to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s strange dream at the risk of losing his life. Perhaps they were guided to these songs of courageous young men by their elders as songs to give them courage, perhaps they chose the songs to inspire other young men like themselves, or perhaps it was a bit of both. But in an era before the Civil Rights Movement these were certainly powerful African American songs.


Explore the collection: “Now What A Time”: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938 to 1943

Find more songs sung by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet in the National Jukebox.

Hall, Stephanie, “John Wesley Work III: Documenting Musical Change,”  Folklife Today, February 26, 2014.

Comments (6)

  1. Thanks for sharing these remarkable recordings. Listening to Old Ship of Zion I was struck by the fact that within 15-20 or so years of the recording, that song, with updated lyrics, would be a staple of the Freedom Singers at Civil Rights rallies across the south. I wonder if any of those young men, or their children, had opportunities to sing in those settings in the 1950s and 60s.

  2. To Stephanie Hall. I just read your blog re the quartet from Murfreesboro TN who recorded works of John W Work III in the 30s at Holloway High School. My mother Inez Henderson Kersey was the very young music teacher at the time and was the arranger of the quartet’s music. She graduated from Knoxville College at the age of 19 in 1939 and therefore was as young or younger than some of the students.

    • Thank you! it is wonderful to get some further background about these singers and their music. Adding the name of your mother to the history can help us to learn more.

  3. To Stephanie Hall:
    Thank you for this informative Black History Information. My husband and I listened to the Holloway High School Quartet sing Old Ship of Zion it was beautiful.

  4. Thank you for this fascinating article! I am sure we are not related but it is interesting that I share a last name with the folklorist.
    Beautiful music making!

  5. Wonderful article and loved the music. Our family has often wondered if John W. Work and his father had any connection to us (although we are seriously Caucasian). My several-times-great grandparents surnamed “Work” had a station on the Underground Railroad. In any event, I love their music, including “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” which is still in our modern Presbyterian hymnal.

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