The Homes and Carols of Christmas

John Wesley Work, Jr.
1871-1925

John Wesley Work is said to have been the first black collector of Negro folksongs, and was most likely born on August 6, 1871 in Nashville, Tennessee. His father, John Wesley Work, was a church choir director in Nashville, where he wrote and arranged music for his choirs. Some of his choristers were members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.

He attended Fisk University in Nashville where he studied Latin and history. Singing in the Mozart society while at school sparked an interest in Negro spirituals in Work. Following graduation, Work went on to teach for a year, studying for one year at Harvard University, and a year as a library assistant at Fisk University. In 1898, he received a Master’s degree from Fisk and took an appointment as a Latin and Greek instructor.

While teaching, Work became a leader in the movement to preserve, study, and perform Negro spirituals. He organized Fisk singing groups about 1889. With the help of his brother, Frederick Jerome Work ,John Wesley Work, Jr., collected, harmonized, and published a number of collections of slave songs and spirituals. The first of these collections was New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, in 1901.

Among the other solo songs he published, the spiritual, "Go, Tell It On The Mountain" was issued in 1907. In 1915, Work published "Folk Song of the American Negro."

For as many as eighteen years, Work trained and performed with professional and student groups of the Jubilee singers. His wife, Agnes Haynes Work, was a singer who helped train the Fisk group. Because of negative feelings toward Black folk music at Fisk, he was forced to resign in 1923.

John Wesley Work, Jr. then served as president of Roger Williams University in Nashville, until his death on September 7, 1925.

One son, Julian, became a professional musician and composer. Another son, John Wesley Work III became famous in his own right as a collector, composer and educator at Fisk. He wrote American Negro songs and spirituals; a comprehensive collection of 230 folk songs, religious and secular in 1940. Additional biographical materials on this son follow.

JOHN WESLEY WORK, JR. (1871-1925)

John Wesley Work, Jr. was most likely born on August 6, 1871 in Nashville, Tennessee. He attended Fisk University in Nashville where he studied Latin and history. Singing in the Mozart society while at school sparked an interest in Negro spirituals in Work. Following graduation, Work went on to teach for a year, studying for one year at Harvard University, and a year as a library assistant at Fisk University. In 1898, he received a Master’s degree from Fisk and took an appointment as a Latin and Greek instructor. While teaching, Work became a leader in the movement to preserve, study, and perform Negro spirituals. With the help of his brother, Work collected, harmonized, and published a number of collections of slave songs and spirituals. The first of these collections was New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1901. For as many as eighteen years, Work trained and performed with professional and student groups of the Jubilee singers. Because of negative feelings toward Black folk music at Fisk, he was forced to resign in 1923. Work then served as president of Roger Williams University in Nashville, until his death on September 7, 1925.

Notes from the Hymnuts, http://hymnuts.luthersem.edu/hcompan/writers/work_jr.htm

 

Sources:

The Hymnuts,

http://library.mtsu.edu/SpecialCollections/Folksongs.html

http://www.gbgm-umc.org/churches/montanamethodists/february/hymn.html

http://www.uni.edu/taylord/work.bio.html

The source for the photographs above was the Davidson County, Tennessee website, http://travel.nostalgiaville.com/Tennessee/Davidson/37208&28nnshvl/nnshvl1.htm

See also Perkins Holly, Ellistine. Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters; A Supplementary Textbook. Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

 

John Wesley Work III
1901-1967

Composer, educator, choral director, and ethnomusicologist John Wesley Work III was born on June 15, 1901, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, to a family of professional musicians. His grandfather, John Wesley Work, was a church choir director in Nashville, where he wrote and arranged music for his choirs. Some of his choristers were members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. His father, John Wesley Work Jr., was a singer, folksong collector and professor of music, Latin, and history at Fisk, and his mother, Agnes Haynes Work, was a singer who helped train the Fisk group. His uncle, Frederick Jerome Work, also collected and arranged folksongs, and his brother, Julian, became a professional musician and composer.

Work began his musical training at the Fisk University Laboratory School, moving on to the Fisk High School and then the university, where he received a B.A. degree in 1923. After graduation, he attended the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (now the Julliard School of Music), where he studied with Gardner Lamson. After Agnes Work's death in 1927, John returned to Nashville and completed his mother's appointment as a trainer of singing groups at Fisk University, where he remained for thirty-nine years. He spent summers in New York studying with Howard Talley and Samuel Gardner. In 1930 he received an M.A. degree from Columbia University with his thesis American Negro Songs and Spirituals. He was awarded two Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowships for the years 1931 to 1933 and, using these to take two years leave from Fisk, he obtained a B.Mus. degree from Yale University in 1933.

Work spent the remainder of his career at Fisk, until his retirement in 1966. He served in a variety of positions, notably as a teacher, chairman of the Fisk University Department of Music from 1950 to 1957, and director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1946 until 1956. When he became the director of the Jubilee Singers, he reorganized the group into an ensemble of mixed voices. In 1956, after touring Europe for twelve weeks, his health waned, causing him to relinquish conducting and administrative duties and concentrate on composing, speaking, teaching, and writing. He retired in 1966.

He published articles in professional journals and dictionaries over a span of more than thirty years. His best known articles were "Plantation Meistersingers" in The Musical Quarterly (Jan. 1940), and "Changing Patterns in Negro Folksongs" in the Journal of American Folklore (Oct. 1940).

Work began composing while still in high school – his first composition was titled Mandy Lou and was written when he was 17 years old – and continued throughout his career, completing over one hundred compositions in a variety of musical forms -- for full orchestra, piano, chamber ensemble, violin and organ -- but his largest output was in choral and solo-voice music. He was awarded first prize in the 1946 competition of the Federation of American Composers for his cantata The Singers, and in 1947 he received an award from the National Association of Negro Musicians.

From 1946 to 1956, John Work, III, published more than fifty compositions. He received an award from the Fellowship of American Composers for his composition, The Singers, in 1946. Based upon a poem by Henry W. Longfellow, this cantata was performed first at the 1946 Fellowship of American Composers Convention in Detroit. After spending three months in Haiti, Work wrote a suite for strings centered on Haitian themes. The string symphony performed this suite, Yenvalou, at the 1946 Saratoga Spring Festival. He completed a manuscript composition, Golgotha, based upon a poem by Arna Bontemps. The Fisk Choir performed this composition during the 1949 Festival of Music and Art.

Work's composition, My Lord, What A Morning, was performed for the Festival of Music and Art in 1956 by choruses representing choirs form Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, South America, France, Yugoslavia, Japan, Canada, and the United States. The choir toured the United Nations and performed this composition in Philharmonic Hall for the Festival's Gala Concert.

Although many musicians did not consider black folk songs to have musical credence, John Work, III, gave the Negro folk song a musical form. His book, American Negro Songs and Spirituals (1960) made an invaluable contribution to musicology. The book contains 230 religious and secular songs, as well as the origins and nature of the various types of black folk songs. Work was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), among other organizations.

In 1963 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Fisk University.

Following Work's collection Negro Folk Songs, the bulk of which was recorded at Fort Valley, he and two colleagues from Fisk University, Charles S. Johnson, head of the department of sociology (later, in October 1946, chosen as the university's first black president), and Lewis Jones, professor of sociology, collaborated with the Archive of American Folk Song on the Library of Congress/Fisk University Mississippi Delta Collection (AFC 1941/002). This project was a two-year joint field study conducted by the Library of Congress and Fisk University during the summers of 1941 and 1942. The goal of the partnership was to carry out an intensive field study documenting the folk culture of a specific community of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta region. The rapidly urbanizing commercial area of Coahoma County, Mississippi, with its county seat in Clarksdale, became the geographical focus of the study. Some of the correspondence included in this collection between Work and Alan Lomax (b. 1915, d. 20 July 2002), then head of the Archive of American Folk Song, touches on both the Fort Valley and the emerging Fisk University recording projects.

John Wesley Work died on May 17, 1967.

Materials on the Work family are in the Special Collections Department of the Fisk University Library.

Sources:

 

Fisk University (1866- )

Fisk University began as Fisk Free Colored School, one of several schools founded for freedmen during the Union military occupation of Nashville. In October of 1865, the American Missionary Association, the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission, and the U. S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands opened the school to help fulfill the educational needs of freed slaves. In December of 186S, General Clinton Bowen Fisk, head of the Kentucky-Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau, secured housing for the school in several old Union army hospital buildings between Church and Cedar (Charlotte) streets near Shaftesbury Avenue and the Union army's contraband camp. On January 9, 1866, the school's founders and Governor William G. Brownlow participated in dedication ceremony for the institution. The principal founders and organizers included John Ogden and Erastus Cravath and black businessmen Nelson Walker and Richard Harris. Like Ogden, Walker was a leading member of the local Republican party.

With the reopening of the Nashville public schools in the fall of 1867, the institution was chartered as Fisk University on August 22. As a college, Fisk needed new quarters. In 1871, the surplus Union Fort Gillem was purchased. A student choir under the leadership of Professor George L. White was organized (1867) and began touring the nation in 1871 to raise building funds. The Jubilee Singers raised over $50,000 for the construction of Jubilee Hall at Salem (Eighteenth Avenue, North) and Jefferson streets. In January of 1876, Fisk University dedicated its new campus. Under its first president, Erastus Cravath, some 130 of Fisk's students and graduates became teachers in black schools. The physical plant continued to expand and by the 1890s Fisk's curriculum had expanded to include liberal arts, theology, teacher training, and a secondary school.

At the turn of the century, with the arrival of a second generation of freed blacks, the school bea undergo changes as black expectations began to rise. Demands were made for more blacks on the faculty and in administration. In June of 1911, there was a black protest because President George Gates dismissed six of twelve black teachers for financial reasons. In 1924-25, a student strike forced President Fayette A. McKenzie to resign under a cloud of charges of racism and oppression. In 1947, Charles S. Johnson became the first black to head Fisk University.

During the 1960s, the civil rights movement radicalized the student body, causing support from white donors to diminish. Facing increasing financial burdens, Fisk unwisely dipped into its $15 million endowment. Nineteen eighty-three found the school with a greatly diminished endowment and serious debts, but also undergirded with determination to carry on.

Presidents and Acting Presidents of Fisk have been: Erastus Milo Cravath (l875-1900), James Merrill (1901-1908), George Augustus Gates (1909-1915), Fayette Avery McKenzie (1915-1925), Thomas Elsa Jones (1926-1946), Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1947-1956), Stephen Junius Wright (1957-1966), James Raymond Lawson (1967-1975), Rutherford Hamlet Adkins (Acting, 1975-1976), George W. Gores Jr. (Acting, 1976-1977), Walter J. Leonard (1977-1984), and Henry Ponder (1984- ).

Source: Reavis L. Mitchell and Haywood Farrar, http://www.picard.tnstate.edu/~library/digital/FISKU.HTM