Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering The Fisk University-Library Of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 is an important book. Edited by writers Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov, it introduces an unpublished manuscript by Fisk University professor, composer, and musicologist John Wesley Work III, sociologist Lewis Wade Jones, and graduate student Samuel Adams. The three Fisk scholars had teamed up with folklorist Alan Lomax, who ran the Archive Of American Song at the Library Of Congress. Their aim was to document the disappearing tradition of folklore in the Delta as it moved from a less rural, more urban environment. Missing for six decades, the manuscript was found by Gordon, stuffed in the back of a file cabinet in the Alan Lomax Archive at New York’s Hunter College.
Gordon discovered the lost manuscript on a tip by Nemerov while he was researching his book Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life And Times Of Muddy Waters. The discovery is huge for the blues, as it sheds an entirely new light on the way the culture is perceived. Up until now, it was thought Lomax discovered Waters and Son House. But Work and his team were there when Lomax recorded and interviewed Waters, House, and other Delta performers. It was Work’s idea that sparked the study in the first place. When a fire took the lives of 200 people in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940, Work thought it important to document the folk songs that would naturally emerge (Howlin’ Wolf’s “Natchez Burning” was based on that event, but was recorded years later). In a proposal to the president of Fisk he wrote: “I would like very much to have the opportunity of collecting songs in that area next spring. At that time, the anniversary of that fire, there undoubted will be many folk expressions and memorials and I believe that research then would be fruitful.”
Fisk enlisted the help of the Library Of Congress to add legitimacy to the project and to fund the expensive recording equipment needed for the field work.
The Fisk manuscript paints a diverse picture of the Delta in the early ’40s. Divided into three parts, each participant chose a different aspect of Delta life to explore. Work’s untitled manuscript is the musical heart of the project. It contains more than 90 pages of transcriptions of social songs (folk songs), spirituals, gospel, children’s game songs, blues, work songs, and gambling songs. Work interviewed a variety of people, from blues musicians to Sunday school teachers to create a balanced view of Delta life. Jones concentrated on the sociology of the Delta, while Adams focused on the cultural change brought about by the urbanization of “Negro life.”
Work conducted two of the four interviews with Waters, and makes an interesting observation when discussing his original material, one contrary to what the blues is supposed to be about. While Lomax focused on Muddy’s sad blues songs, Work heard something else. He notes Muddy’s popular “Burr Clover Blues” is “a song of admiration for the fertility of the land on which he lives and incidentally is a blues inspired by no hard luck, disillusionment, or unrequited love.” This may have been a gentle swipe at Lomax who was enamored by the hard-drinking, hard-luck bluesman.
Work covers all aspects of musical expression in the Delta. Despite the academic nature of the study, his delight in the music is apparent. He is particularly engaging in the chapter on children’s game songs. “Visitors to the Delta,” he writes, “who are fortunate enough to hear them are struck by the strange beauty of the game songs sung by the Negro children there. Hearing these songs in the distance at dusk arouses in one a feeling that is almost eerie save for the enthrallment it gives.”
The Fisk portion of the study was completed in 1943 and brought to the Library Of Congress where it was promptly lost. It was found briefly, and then lost again. Lomax left the Library in 1943 but resurfaced in 1947, writing to ask Work for permission to “bring a portable machine and copy off some of the material I need from the Coahoma recordings.” Work, whose manuscript had never come to light, inquired as to the purpose of the copies and was told they were for a book Lomax was writing.
That book was not published until 1993. With Work dead, his manuscript lost, and the study long abandoned, Lomax published The Land Where The Blues Began. In his preface, he takes credit for the study: “I approached Fisk University, the Princeton of black colleges, with the idea of doing a joint field study with my department at the Library Of Congress.” A self-proclaimed champion of the underprivileged, Lomax continues: “If prestigious Fisk became involved in folklore work, I reasoned, black intellectuals might overcome their prejudices against the oral traditions of the rural and unlettered blacks.” Lomax writes that he was ultimately “unsatisfied” with the Fisk portion of the study because it “failed to locate the cultural wellsprings of this underprivileged majority and to describe the dynamics of their constant creativity.”
John Work, Lewis Jones, and Samuel Adams chose to focus their study on the reality of Delta life. They concentrated on what was there. Alan Lomax sought to reinforce his own somewhat romantic and preconceived notions about what that life was supposed to be. By literally stealing the study from the Fiskites he rendered an important aspect of black scholarship and black life invisible.
– Beverly Zeldin-Palmer
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