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'Lost Delta Found:' A Chronicle of Mississippi Music

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'Lost Delta Found:' A Chronicle of Mississippi Music

'Lost Delta Found:' A Chronicle of Mississippi Music

'Lost Delta Found:' A Chronicle of Mississippi Music

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John Work was one of the first African-American academics to argue the value of black folk music. Courtesy Fisk University, Franklin Library, Special Collections hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Fisk University, Franklin Library, Special Collections

John Work's first field recordings were of shape-note singers. Work, third from the left, is seen at the Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Ozark, Ala., in September 1938. Courtesy Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, John W. Work III Field Collection hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, John W. Work III Field Collection

John Work's first field recordings were of shape-note singers. Work, third from the left, is seen at the Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Ozark, Ala., in September 1938.

Courtesy Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, John W. Work III Field Collection

John Work's transcription of "Levee Blues," sung by blues legend Son House. Courtesy Fisk University, Franklin Library, Special Collections hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Fisk University, Franklin Library, Special Collections

John Work's transcription of "Levee Blues," sung by blues legend Son House.

Courtesy Fisk University, Franklin Library, Special Collections

Field Recordings

Hear early-1940s field recordings made by John Work and Alan Lomax from Mississippi and Tennessee:

Credit: 'Amazing Grace' recorded by John W. Work, III in Pulaski, Tenn., c. 1940; remaining songs recorded in Coahoma County, Miss., by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, 1941-1942.

'Amazing Grace' - Pulaski Tennessee Prayer Society

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Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down

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Sun Goin' Down

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Mississippi Blues

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'Intoned Sermon' - The Rev. C. H. Savage

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'Lost Delta Found' book cover
Vanderbilt University Press

In the summer of 1941, a relatively unknown musicologist from Fisk University in Nashville accompanied the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax on a research trip to the American South.

John Work, an African American trained in classical music, was interested in the musical traditions of rural life. Work and Lomax headed to Coahoma County in the Mississippi Delta — where they documented the music heard in churches, blues joints and cotton fields.

Most of the fieldwork there was conducted by Lomax. But it was Work who analyzed the music itself through recordings.

Lomax went on to publish his memoir on the experience; the book helped to elevate his reputation as a musical historian. Work's writings on the same subject were unnoticed by the public.

Michele Norris talks to Bruce Nemerov, one of the editors of the Lost Delta Found, a new book that chronicles the research of Work and other academics from Fisk University in the 1940s.

In the following excerpt from Lost Delta Found, Fisk sociologist Lewis W. Jones writes about the pioneers of Coahoma County in the Mississippi Delta:

The Pioneers

The oldest person found in Coahoma County was Lucy Adams. A hundred and four years old, blind, and unable to control her memory, she would sit in her rocking chair and entertain herself for hours by singing in an uncertain and quavering voice. Usually she sang only snatches of songs and sometimes she confused one with another. Her favorite was one she said her grandfather had sung:

Mary's the bosom bearer and Jesus is her child
Mary's the bosom bearer and Jesus is her chi
ldKeep your lamp trimmed and bur
ningKeep your lamp trimmed and b
urningFor your work's most done.

- - - - - - -

Sister don't get weary

Sister don't get weary

Sister heaven's just before you

Sister heaven's just before you

Keep your lamp trimmed and burning

For your work's most done.

- - - - - - -

Brother don't get weary, etc.

Another song she liked, but of which she could remember only a fragment, was:

In the morning when I rise

Get up in the morning like a turtle dove

I don't want to stay here no longer.

- - - - - - -

When I come to study my cause

I'm afraid I'm not borned of God

I don't want to stay here no longer.

These and others she sang were not Delta songs for she had but recently come from the hills and her memories, therefore, were those of other Mississippi sections.

The true Delta old people are younger, ranging in age from seventy-five to ninety years. There are nearly two hundred of them in Coahoma County but they are seldom seen unless they are sought. They sit on their porches in summer, before the fire in winter; their memories are good and they have lived most of their adult lives in Coahoma County to which they came as pioneers. Phineas MacClain, as an example, has been a farmer in Sherard Community for sixty years. George Adams, the retired bad-man, lives at Farrell. "Dr. Tom" at Cloverhill, Jim Neal in Clarksdale, and Rev. James Chambert at Lyons are representatives of the pioneer group. There are no memories of slavery in the Delta among them. This section of the Delta has little history in lore or writing prior to the rebellion of 1861. The 6,606 people enumerated in the census in 1860 seem to have been concentrated largely on the ridges east of the Sunflower River. Along the Mississippi there were a few plantations but these had not been fully developed. Slave labor was used but few Negroes remained after emancipation.

In the decade of the war, the increase in population in Coahoma County was small; about 500 more people were recorded in the county census of 1876 than for 1860. In the decade of the seventies there was a considerable increase. The census of 1880 showed a white population of 2,412 and it showed too, that nearly six thousand freedmen had been added to the Negro population. The oldest Negroes in the county had migrated there between 1870 and 1890. The memories of slavery preserved in the tales of the oldest generation belong to areas other than the Delta, the earliest accounts of this area are these describing it as a frontier.

When the pioneers came, the Delta was regarded not only as mysterious but tales were circulated advertising its damages. Most of the stories had to do with the river on rampage — "they had stories in the hills about overflows with people drowned and houses floating down the river." These accounts, describing the Delta as a sinister spot where life and property were constantly in jeopardy, gave way in the seventies to equally exciting stories about wealth to be had there. An old woman explaining the circumstances which prompted here family to migrate to the Delta said:

The cause my father and my relatives coming here was people come down here and come back with so much money. They come back to the hills and make folks think greenbacks grew on trees and they had ponds of molasses here, and folks in the hills believed it.

Others reported that the same myth reached as far away as Georgia and set the credulous on the move. There was considerable unrest and movement on the part of Negroes throughout the south in this period and some sought their fortunes in the flood-washed but rich delta.

Most of the Delta was virgin land in 1870. It was necessary to lay the ace to the forests before the plow could fulfill the destiny of one of the world's richest cotton areas. The people needed to develop the Delta came from the older settled areas where they has been concentrated in slavery. One who came from the vicinity of Meridian said:

This country was built up out of hill people. It was just territory when the Civil War was fought. Wasn't nobody in here much.

Another old man seemed to have wandered away from Alabama in his youth. After some aimless moving about he finally came to settle in the Delta.

I was born on the Edwards Plantation near Montgomery, Alabama. After freedom come, I left. When I come from Montgomery, Alabama I struck Mississippi and turned left, went to New Orleans for a few days. Being shrewd and a good laborer I turned right and come up here and settled in '80 on the Sherard Plantation. I come in the fall and help gather the crop, and then right away I occupied farming.

When Stack Mangham's father came from Georgia, the only land in cultivation on the Clark Plantation was a narrow strip on the east bank of the Sunflower River. Upon their arrival to inspect a tract of newly purchased land, pioneers found it necessary to mark their path through the forest.

Some ideal soil and climate characterized the Delta, nearly all of the earliest settlers came with the express purpose of developing cotton. Even gamblers, in the pre-levee days, applied their winnings to the expense of harvesting their crops — always, of course before the "high-water" covered the land. These planters took the risk of reaching the safety of the higher ridges ahead of the flood rivers. But coping with "high-water" was not the most arduous of their tasks — they had to haul their harvested cotton over newly made paths to distant steamboat landings. They had to clear the land, and later build levees and railroads, both essential enterprises auxiliary to the basic cotton economy.

In clearing the land of the forest, owners of plantations hired gangs of wood choppers while small farmers of forty and eighty acre tracts had "log-rollings." The sound of axes rang through the Delta as an accompaniment of simple rhythmic woodcutters' songs. A popular one was:

July and August, Tu Lum

July and August, Tu Lum

July and August, Tu Lum

Two hottest months in the year, Tu Lum.

July and August are traditional wood-cutting months because they are the months of the "lay-by," the period between the planting of cotton and its harvesting. When cotton growers have done all that they can with plow and hoe, there is this interval of waiting while nature ripens the fruit. The time is used for incidental jobs — clearing new fields, for example.

In the frontier days, wood cutting frequently took on the character of a contest between the pioneers. Typical is this story told of two rival plantation owners who were clearing land at the same time. The two gangs of woodcutters were working near enough for one to hear the crashing of trees felled by the other. Chuckling, Phineas MacClain gave this account:

Ooten claimed his niggers could outwork Oneil's niggers. Oneil heard about it and made Ooten do his niggers awful bad. Oneil would come in the night and cut his trees half through and the next morning Oneil would be falling trees before Ooten's niggers got started.

Ooten thought Oneil's niggers was outworking his niggers and it made him awful mean. He would whip his niggers almost to death.

The control exercised by the employer over his wood cutters was similar to that exercised over levee workers and other gang laborers. Stimulated by their rhythmic songs, encouraged by their wages, and driven by physical punishment, the Negro woodcutters made acre after acre of forest land suitable for the cultivation of cotton.

The woodcutters made a sport of clearing land when it was done as a "log-rolling" on one of the small farms. The owner would provide a big inner and plenty of liquor. Throughout the day the guests at the log-rolling would have a "big time with the men trying to show their manhood". Skill with the axe was a source of pride, but tests of strength came in moving the logs and piling them together. A routine was developed in which four small sticks were forced under a log and eight men, grasping the ends of the sticks, would lift and carry the log to the pile. This procedure required cooperation. "All the men would move together when somebody call — 'Hands on your pole! Bow and Come! Bow and Come!" There would be logs too heavy to be lifted by the usual eight men claimed "they didn't have no grip in their hands and would wear a cuff". The "cuff", a leather device strapped to the wrist, was so designed that the end of the pole fitted into a leather loop. Others participated in the log-rolling by wearing a "bull band". This fitted over the shoulders with a loop into which the pole fitted. The strong had little sympathy for the weak and thought it a good joke to let the wearer of a "bull-band" fit the pole in his harness and release their holds, thus leaving the victim pinned to the earth by the weight of the log. Many acres were placed in cultivation on days when clearing land was more sport than work.

The Negro pioneers became operators of cotton farms under a variety of tenure arrangements. Some came to the Delta with complete organizations for plantation operation. For example, John H. Sherard came to the Delta from Alabama bringing tenants and skilled craftsmen with him. In his group there were a carpenter, a brick mason, and a blacksmith. Other Negroes drifted in alone but found no difficulty in securing employment because laborers were scarce. Still others came to work on the building of the railroad or the levee and remained to farm. A rather interesting arrangement was reported by one early settler:

This in here from Greenwood to Memphis was trees and cane. White people came in here and took up land and let you have it for seven years to work and furnished you what you need to clean the boogers, bears, and mosquitoes out of it.

While the area was still frontier, its destiny as a plantation region seemed unquestioned. Plantation owners seeking more fertile soil found it here, and Negro farm workers found better working conditions than those existing in the older plantation areas.

The plantation system in this period was in its most benevolent phase, if the reminiscences of the old men are to be trusted. The region did not attract all the workers who were wanted and the plantation owners made many concessions to retain tenants once engaged. When a tenant was secured he was given an attractive contract.

When a man got a man in here he tried to keep him. He didn't force him but he tried to do so many things to make him stay. If land was renting for ten dollars an acre, he'd give it to you for nine dollars and the rough land free. We could sell our own cotton.

Sharecropping as a system had not developed and the tenants enjoyed some independence and a voice in the management of their business transactions.

Agriculture then had all the disadvantages expected in the cultivation of new lands. However, the fact that they were new lands had its compensations, one of which was bountiful production. According to one account:

In the old days we made a bale of cotton to the acre. In '86 I made eighty-four bales. In '90 I had sixteen bales of cotton out-of-doors to be disposed at my say so. I sold three bales under Cleveland's administration and didn't get a hundred dollars for them but I lived better than I do now.

According to the practices obtaining, the landlord received his share of the crop and the tenant was free to dispose of his part at his convenience and according to terms agreeable to him.

The lands were not intensively cultivated and the farmers enjoyed the contribution of forest and stream to their subsistence. In those days "bear tracks in your cornfield was more common than pig tracks now". Deers, turkeys, small animals and fowls were a part of the abundant wild life. The streams and lakes contained an ample supply of fish. One of the tall tales of the time declares that "fish was so plentiful if you go out in the river in a boat and take a light the fish would jump in your boat. There were ample woodlands and pasture so the game and fish, together with the production of food crops, made low priced cotton no serious problem.

Some disadvantages were the short growing season and the limited transportation facilities. No drainage system had been developed and the wet season was long. Sometimes it was late in the spring before crops could be planted. The latest beginning of preparation for planting recorded was that in which the farmer said, "I run my first furrow the fifth day of May and then couldn't go all the way through, but I made eighteen bales of cotton and two hundred bushels of corn that year". Difficulties in getting cotton to market were due to the poor roads and the fact that local market centers were all on one side of the county. The river was the chief avenue of transportation and distances from the farms to the steamboat landings were great as well as taxing because of the poor roads. In the dry season "it would take six horses or three steers to haul three bales of cotton. You'd have to cuss and holler and everything to get to the river". In the wet season there was another problem:

Mighty near all the crop caught in here after Xmas you have to boat out. It would take a skiff and two men to boat two bales of cotton out. When the weather got bad you'd have to wait for the water. The mud was so bad you couldn't haul it.

Life was strenuous, the country was wild, tools were crude, conveniences were few, but the people had a good time. There was leisure filled with diversion and recreation for everybody. The pioneers took their recreation seriously. Everybody enjoyed the picnics which were almost a weekly occurrence in midsummer. In the lay-by, the favorite season for the annual celebrations of the organizations in the communities, the roll of the drums and shrill note of the fife were frequently heard entertaining the picnickers. Most of the other recreational activities were divided into those for the sinful and those for the religious people. The log rolling and the quilting were entertainment for all, without distinction. For a quilting, the women gathered and worked all day getting the quilt completed and the men were invited in the evening. There would be food and perhaps "ring plays" but the distinctive feature of this occasion was "christening the quilt". The new quilt would cover a man and he would chase the woman until he caught one, whereupon his stumbling and blundering chase was rewarded with a kiss. The "ring play" is no longer practiced but was a favorite form of recreation for the pioneers. On moonlit nights they would gather in a well-swept yard and sing and go through the antics of the "ring play". Of the plays reported there was one in which a man would get in the center of the ring and the group would sing "there's a stove pipe waiting for me" and then call a girl's name. The girl would join the man in the center of the circle and kiss him. Then another man would take the center of the ring, the group would sing again while he was joined by a partner to go through the routine again.

The favorite pastime for the religious was the "Rock Daniel". At church entertainments, after the quilting, or at parties given by religious people. "the rock" was a prominent feature. A man and a woman facing each other would place their hands on each other's shoulders and rock while singing familiar religious songs. Sometimes at the conclusion of a church service, the members would remain and have "a rock."

For men, gambling was a popular activity. There were regular gambling houses at the steamboat landings and on the boats, but a table might be set up any place. According to one story:

We went over to Malone's Landing to meet the boat to get a new engine for the gin. Between the levee and the river was a crap table. The road curved but a path come right by the table. I saw a man or thought I saw a man laying under the table. We thought he was drunk. I said to one feller, "There's a man laying under the crop table". He said, "Yes, he's dead. A nigger killed him last night but we ain't had no time to fool with him." They kept right on gambling with him laying under the table.

The gamblers had game songs and gambler's talk peculiarly their own. One song they sang was:

My lover says she's broken hearted

And that she may be

She says I'm a drunkard

And on a drunken spree

I'm gonna quit gambling and save my money

For my little family.

There were other songs popular with the gamblers such as "Wreck on the Road Somewhere", "If I Get Even I'm Gonna Get Up", "Jack's Neither; Trey's Neither Low".

The dance, or "break-down", had a more developed ritual than the other recreational activities. The two participants of the "break-down" were the fiddler and the man who called figures. An old fiddler believed that "the ma who called figures was called just like a preacher". One of the dances went according to the following directions given by the caller:

1. Honor your partner

2. First gentleman and lady lead off from the right

3. And swing

4. Next lady lead out

5. Shoo Fly swing

6. Swing corners all

7. Gentlemen to the center

8. Ladies circle right

9. Form a basket

10. Break ranks, promenade to the bar

"Break ranks" and "promenade to the bar" made it necessary for the gentleman to treat the lady to refreshments. Some of the popular fiddle tunes to which they danced were: "Irish Washerwoman", "Arkansas Traveler", "Tennessee Breakdown", "Susan Jane", "Blue Eagle Jail", and "Bell Cow in the Bend". An old fiddler explained that there was not much singing at the breakdown but he remembered some of the ditties they sang:

(1) Alabam gal

Can't you come out tonight

Dance in the moonlight.

(2) Stephen went to town

For a wagon load of peaches

Wagon broke down

Broke Stephen all to pieces.

(3) Wind up your hook; wind up your line

Fish no more 'til summer time.

Gimme the hook; gimme the line

And gimme the gal you call Caline

Well, she's neat in the waist

Pretty in the face

That's the black gal just suit my taste.

The pioneers declared that they had a good time. They drank heavily and played strenuously but always with abandon and real enjoyment.

From Lost Delta Found, Copyright 2005 Estate of Lewis Wade Jones.

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