John Wesley Work II and Frederick Jerome Work

John Wesley Work II photo from Nashville, Tenn. 1911. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. Shelf locator: Sc 784.7-F (Fisk University news. Jubilee Singers number. After forty years, 1871-1911.). Frederick Jerome Work photo at the home of Albert C. (Albert Coombs) Barnes , Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1940 February 4, Merion, PA. Carl Van Vechten Papers Relating to African American Arts and Letters. James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Call Number JWJ MSS 1050. ©Van Vechten Trust

African American, Music, Ethnography

John Wesley Work II and Frederick Jerome Work

(1871-1925), (1901-1967)

John Wesley Work II and his younger sibling, Frederick Jerome Work became leaders in the movement to preserve, study, and perform Negro spirituals. Born to a musical family in Tennessee, the brothers collected, harmonized, and published a number of collections of slave songs and spirituals. Both attended and graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.  

John W. Work II, born in 1871, graduated as valedictorian in 1895 with a BA in Latin and history, studied for a year at Harvard, and, in 1898, earned an MA at Fisk.  He was hired to teach Latin and Greek at Fisk and in 1906, became chair of his department. From 1899 until 1923, J W Work II and his wife, Agnes, led a new iteration of the touring Fisk Jubilee Singers and from 1903, the Fisk Jubilee Quartet. 

John W. Work II is recognized as the first African American to collect, transcribe, and publish African American spirituals. He felt that the spirituals preserved the rich religious faith and cultural knowledge of his ancestors and merited preservation. He saw a rich heritage in these songs—a source of pride, rather than shame due to the stigma of slavery and stereotypes about Blacks. In a chapter of his 1915 book, J W Work II discussed methods of collecting and preserving this music and theorized the development of Black folk songs. For the Works, development meant ‘elevating’ these songs into classical music by harmonizing them and selecting the best songs to use as a foundation for their own original choral compositions, in line with ideas of racial uplift popular in the early 20th century. From 1923 until his death in 1925,    J W Work II served as president of Roger Williams University in Nashville.  He was the father of John W. Work III.  

Frederick J. Work, born in 1879, graduated from Fisk in 1903 in music. In the summers of 1900 and 1901, he was paid by Fisk to attend and transcribe spirituals at camp meetings sung by “common people.” This work yielded his first book of spirituals. In 1907, his second book of collected and transcribed spirituals was published with an introduction by his brother. F J Work was acclaimed for arranging spirituals in a manner “true to their original form,” at a time when many people sang them in a way that eliminated their unique qualities. He taught music in high school and conducted acclaimed youth choirs in high school from 1908-1922 in places including Nashville, TN,  Kansas City, MO and Pine Bluff, AR, and finally, in Bordentown, NJ, for the last twenty years of his career.    

Among their published works:

Work, Frederick J., ed. New Jubilee Songs as Sung by Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901)

Work, Frederick J., ed. Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907)

Work II, John W.  Folk Song of the American Negro (1915)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)