John Lovell, Jr.

Photo by Bill Wunsch, Denver Post staff photographer, published March 26, 1968.

African American, Music, Literature

John Lovell, Jr.


Born in Asheville, North Carolina, on July 25, 1907, Dr. John Lovell, Jr. was a prolific scholar and researcher who specialized in the influence of the African diaspora on music, arts, literature, and drama. 

Lovell obtained his BA (1926) and MA (1927) from Northwestern University, respectively, and earned his PhD (1938) in English from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he pursued additional study in drama history, playwriting, and dramatic techniques at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Dramatic Workshop in New York. 

For 45 years, Lovell served as a Professor of Literature at Howard University’s English department and was its chair at the time of his passing. During his career, he served as Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and in several other administrative roles. He also taught at West Virginia State College, Prairie View State College, the College of the Pacific, and he lectured as a visiting professor at numerous colleges across the country and the globe. Lovell’s endless thirst for understanding human society cultural linkages and knowledge were vast. Lovell was a recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1935), General Education Board Fellowship, the 1959 Washington Evening Star Award for his study of “America in Drama,” a Fulbright Lecturer Fellowship, and State Department world travel. He researched and lectured in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the West Indies.
While most of Dr. Lovell’s scholarship addressed drama and literature, his magnum opus for folklore examines scholarly arguments about the origins and meanings of African American spirituals through analysis of their texts. In his 1939 article, “The Social Implications of the Negro Spiritual,” Lovell contended that to appreciate the cultural meaning and significance of the Negro spiritual, researchers must look to Africa to understand the Negro spiritual traditions and how colonialism reshaped their cultural expression. Extending that argument in his book, Black Song: The Forge and the Flame (1971), he argued for recognition of the Negro spiritual as an original poetic creation full of coded feelings of an oppressed folk community, validating the humanity and creativity of Black people. He also explored how the spiritual has provided fuel for choral and art music across the globe in the 20th century and included extensive bibliographies of references and field collections as a resource for readers. Lovell was a member of a number of professional associations, including the Modern Language Association, National Council of Teachers of English, American Theatre Association, American Studies Association, and Folklore Society of Greater Washington. Among Dr. Lovell’s acclaimed publications relevant to folklore are:

“The Social Implications of the Negro Spiritual.” The Journal of Negro Education 8 (4) (1939): 634-643. 

Black Song: The Forge and the Flame: The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual was Hammered Out (1971)

Joyce Marie Jackson

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