Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of singing)

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, God.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...I found...

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes God.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, God.

NORRIS: 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. His name was John Work. He was an African-American and a trained classical musician interested in the musical traditions of rural life. Work and Lomax headed to Coahoma County in the Mississippi Delta. There, they documented the music heard in churches and blues joints and cotton fields.

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...do you see me...

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, God.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, God.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: (Singing) Oh, yes, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Congregation: Oh, yes, God, yes, God.

NORRIS: Most of the field work there was conducted by Lomax, but it was John Work who analyzed the music itself through recordings. Alan Lomax went on to publish his memoir experience and the book helped elevate his reputation as a musical historian. But John Work's writings on the same subject were unnoticed by the public; that is, until now with the publication of a book called "Lost Delta Found." Bruce Nemerov is one of the authors. He says John Work approached the study with a combination of sophisticated musical training and cultural pride.

Mr. BRUCE NEMEROV (Author): He was at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, which is now Juilliard School of Music, and he was studying composition, theory and music education. And he had to come back to Nashville upon his father's death and support an extended family, his brother and his two sisters and his mother. He had a very tough life in terms of having obligations that kept him from maybe doing some things that he would have liked to have done.

But that all said, being an educated black, educated in Nashville and New York, being from a line of middle-class academics, he saw the beauty of his folk culture. And in those days, a lot of blacks were encouraged to ignore that. Fisk, at one time, discouraged the jubilee singers from singing spirituals because the spirituals were slave music. And the blacks, at that time, were trying to figure out how they could be part of mainstream America and Harlem renaissance and the new Negro and all these pressures to suppress the heritage. Certainly Professor Work felt that pressure but saw such beauty in this music that he felt compelled to address it. At the same time, he was writing cantatas and piano suites and he was a world-famous choir director himself. So very interesting personality.

NORRIS: Based on his writings, did you get the sense that he heard and experienced something all together different than Alan Lomax, that he had a different view of the music?

Mr. NEMEROV: He did have a different view of the music. Alan was really concerned about documenting things that were disappearing, but the mandate of the study was to see what was there and what was in current use. So Alan was quite interested in the spirituals, but John Work points out in his manuscript that the spirituals were hardly sung in churches in Mississippi in Coahoma County anymore, that the modern songs, gospel songs were what were in favor there. In fact, he found some gospel songs in the Delta that he found nowhere else, and he wasn't aware of. There was a beautiful one sung by Bozie Sturdivant called "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down."

NORRIS: Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down")

Mr. BOZIE STURDIVANT: (Singing) Ain't no grave can hold my body down. Ain't no grave can hold my body down, my body down. When they try to beat down, I be getting up walking round.

Mr. NEMEROV: You could hear in the background there, Michele, the congregation stamping their feet on the wooden floor of the church and you can hear them kind of humming a little figure behind his singing.

(Soundbite of "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down")

Mr. STURDIVANT: (Singing) Ain't no grave can hold my body down, my body down. Now when they try to beat down, I be getting up walking around. Ain't no grave can hold my body down. ...(Unintelligible) beautiful city the street was filled with gold. Then I ...(unintelligible) been to heaven, oh, Lord....

Mr. NEMEROV: What Professor Work found interesting about that is what--he called it a solo gospel song. Traditionally, there'd be congregational singing where the whole congregation would either be answering a leader or just singing on their own polyphony, as it's called in the music. But this was to Professor Work a new approach to vernacular religious music.

NORRIS: John Work was a musicologist by training, but he also was a sociologist and an anthropologist. He was able to see the community through their songs, and you note that he was among the first to point out the relationship between the blues and the pulpit.

Mr. NEMEROV: Yeah, one of the things I think he was proudest of, this Coahoma project, was there was a prayer service recorded down in Mississippi.

Unidentified Man: I'm ...(unintelligible) heavenly ...(unintelligible). I'm (unintelligible) every morning, every evening.

Mr. NEMEROV: He listened to this sermon and he realized what he was hearing was music and it had a key and that the preacher hit certain notes, stresses them, has a rhythm to his--all musical attributes.

Unidentified Man: I heard, I heard, it happened one morning, owed to God, owed to God.

Mr. NEMEROV: Professor Work comments that sometimes the sense of what he's saying is not important at all, but it's the pitch and the intensity...

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible).

NORRIS: And you hear someone humming behind him.

Mr. NEMEROV: Yeah, it's the congregation in the Baptist churches and still to this day, at least down here in Tennessee and in the South in general, the congregation is part of the service, very much so. And they comment on what the preacher is doing.

Unidentified Man: ...see the Lord there. Get up this morning, my brethren...

NORRIS: You also note that he was among the first to hear the guitar in blues music as a voice unto itself.

Mr. NEMEROV: Yeah, that's another thing about Professor Work that just so impresses me with his clear-eyed look at things, a trained musician, a pianist, you know, schooled in Beethoven and Brahms and Liszt and Mozart, and yet, when he heard Muddy Waters or Son House who was Muddy's teacher and Robert Johnson's teacher, he recognized that these people were geniuses.

Here's a section. Let me read just a little bit of that. `The playing of Sun House represents the pinnacle of guitar performance. The style he employs elevates the guitar in equal importance with the voice.' As far as I know, this was the first mention of the guitar being a second voice in the blues. He goes on, `In it, the deeply resonant tone, the stimulating rhythm and the fascinating patterns as well as a thirdly adequate harmony provides completely satisfying music.' And then he goes on to talk about Sun's style, and he says, `For some unexplained reason, he'--Sun House--`has the unrivaled faculty, a singing a tonic figure against a dominant chord on the guitar with very agreeable results.'

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NEMEROV: In the blues, you've got what they call the one-four-five chords, the tonic, the subdominant, the dominant. And then at the end of the last line of a three-line blues, you'd typically be playing the dominant chord on the guitars, and in the key of G, you'd be playing a D chord. Well, Sun does that on the guitar, but he sings a melodic figure that really fits more properly against the one chord, against the tonic chord.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SUN HOUSE: (Singing) I stay behind ...(unintelligible).

Mr. NEMEROV: There's the five chord...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOUSE: (Singing) You know, ...(unintelligible) not against...

Mr. NEMEROV: ...then back to the one chord, tonic chord.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOUSE: (Singing) Well, you know that's bad, I declare that's you back there.

Mr. NEMEROV: Now he's going to go to the four chord, subdominant.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOUSE: (Singing) I declare that's you back there.

Mr. NEMEROV: And back to the tonic. Now here comes the dominant now.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOUSE: (Singing) You know my woman done quit me, woo, man, look (unintelligible). You know...

Mr. NEMEROV: So that last line he sang in his vocal chord is the chord he's playing on the guitar, but as Professor Work points out, it's very agreeable.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOUSE: (Singing) ...thinking about the old times, baby, that I once had. Mm-hmm, if I don't go crazy, I'd say I'm gonna lose my mind. Oo, I believe I'm gonna lose my mind, 'cause I've ...(unintelligible), baby (unintelligible) all the time.

NORRIS: You have this classically trained musician listening to this self-trained blues man and seeing a spark of genius.

Mr. NEMEROV: Exactly. That's what--he calls them geniuses in his manuscript. He singles out David Edwards, Honeyboy Edwards, who's still alive, Muddy Waters and Sun House and Willie Brown with that guitar part for his "Mississippi Blues" that reminded Professor Work of a big band arrangement by a white band leader.

NORRIS: John Works' manuscript is more than just a study of music. It's really a snapshot of what was going on in Coahoma County at the time. As a scholar yourself, did you wonder how this might have contributed to sort of the greater view of the Delta if his work had been acknowledged and included in the Library of Congress?

Mr. NEMEROV: My co-editor, Robert Gordon, and I have had a lot of discussions and have wondered had this manuscript gotten completed in publishable form in the '40s and, say, come out right after World War II, not only would it--showed about how music was used in a particular community and a particular location, but might it not have sparked some other studies of all sorts of ethnic groups all around the country. So it's one of those regretful things that it didn't come out on time, but at least 60 years later, here it is in a readable form.

NORRIS: Bruce Nemerov, it's been great talking to you.

Mr. NEMEROV: Thank you for having me, Michele. I appreciate it.

NORRIS: Bruce Nemerov is the co-author of "Lost Delta Found."

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: For photographs of John Work and related information, visit our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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