Thursday, December 13, 2007

John Work: A folklorist's window into 1940s black music

From the International Herald Tribune:

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.

[Read The Entire Article Here]

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