Willis Laurence James

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

African American, Music, Folklore, Education

Willis Laurence James


Willis Laurence James was a musician, composer and music director, educator, concert violinist, lecturer, folklorist, and ethnomusicologist of African American religious and secular music traditions of the rural South.  

Born in Montgomery, Alabama and raised in Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida, Willis Laurence James was educated in a rich heritage of Black spirituals and African American cultural events hosted by the Baptist Church. Recognized as a musical prodigy in his youth, his parents brought James to study with concert violinist Kemper Harreld at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, as a member of the Morehouse Glee Club and Quartet, he began arranging some of the Black folksongs learned in his youth After graduating with a BA. in music in 1923, he pursued further study at Chicago Musical College.

During his first teaching job at Leland College in Baker, Louisiana, in 1923, James also initiated collecting songs, cries, and hollers from nearby levee workers along the Mississippi River. From 1928 to 1933, James taught music at Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1933, he moved to teach and chair the Music Department at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he would remain for the rest of his career and where he later assumed directorship of music for the Spelman-Morehouse-Atlanta University Choruses. During this time, he also conducted extensive fieldwork on African American quartet singing in mining camps in Alabama, folk songs, work songs, and spirituals in South Carolina Sea Islands, southern Georgia, and coastal Florida on a General Education Board grant.

James believed that Black folk music should be collected by Black scholars, who had appropriate cultural lenses and knowledge, and who could gain trust of previously stereotyped and exploited communities in order to record natural performances. Asserting the value of Black folk music to be equal to European music, he urged its preservation, particularly through performance. Thus, he not only documented and analyzed his fieldwork, but he taught, and performed those traditions himself, and composed arrangements to be performed by others to preserve the music. His theory of the folk cry as foundational to Black music is acclaimed and his arrangements are noted for preserving the original character of the songs he collected.

With Dr. Horace Mann Bond, president of Fort Valley State College in south central Georgia, James cofounded the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival in 1941, and later conducted musical and cultural fieldwork for the festival, which is thought to be the first folk festival organized entirely by and for African Americans. This festival ran until 1955. 

Willis Laurence James, a beloved teacher and mentor, earned numerous awards including fellowships from the Library of Congress, Carnegie Foundation, Julius Rosenwald Foundation. He was also recognized with an honorary doctorate from Wilberforce University.

His publications include:

Stars in the Elements (published posthumously)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)