John Wesley Work III

Photo from The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

African American, Music, Ethnography

John Wesley Work III


John Wesley Work III was from a family of professional musicians and folklorists who taught at Fisk University for three generations. As a scholar, he not only composed but collected and analyzed music from across the South.     

Born in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in 1901, the son of Agnes and John Wesley Work II, John Wesley Work III began his musical training at Fisk University Laboratory School and High School and then matriculated to Fisk University, where he earned a BA in history in 1923. He pursued graduate study at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard School of Music) in New York City, earning an MA at Columbia University in 1930 and writing his thesis, American Negro Songs and Spirituals

From 1927 to 1966, he built his career teaching music at Fisk University, where he had been recruited to assume his mother’s position when she passed away. A Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship from 1931 to 1933 provided him the opportunity to take temporary leave to complete a B Mus. from Yale in 1933.  Work III served as chair of the Fisk music department and from 1947 to 1956, and directed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as his father, John W. Work II, had before him. In 1963, Fisk University awarded Work III an honorary doctorate.

Work III, following in the footsteps of his family, was a major collector of both African American spirituals and traditional religious music and of a wide variety of vernacular musical traditions, recording the music on audio recording equipment. He conducted fieldwork and served as a festival judge for the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival in Georgia. He recorded blues, ballads, children’s songs, fiddlers, mandolinists, and music across social class statuses.  Unlike many collectors of this era, Work understood that the isolated communities he explored continued to generate new living traditions while maintaining older styles and repertoire, so he collected both old and new music styles in parts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia in 1938 and 1941. In the summers of the early 1940s, he conducted fieldwork and transcribed interviews in a two-year joint community field study between Fisk University and the Library of Congress. This study documented Black folklife in Coahoma County in the delta region of Mississippi. Work III contributed as a member of the research team with sociologists, Dr. Charles Johnson, Lewis Wade Jones, Samuel C. Adams, and anthropology fellow Ulysses S. Young.  Unfortunately, the final version of the valuable research for this project remained approved and was lost in the Library of Congress, denying the researchers recognition for their work while they were alive. A recovered version of the project was pieced together and published to acclaim in 2005.        

Among John Wesley Work III’s numerous publications are:

American Negro Songs and Spirituals (1940)

Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study 1941-1942.  Ed. by Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005, posthumous)

Recording Black Culture (CD)  (2007)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)