Losing the Blues 

Rediscovered Fisk documents offer new context for Delta music

If Alan Lomax is universally recognized as a pioneer of regional folk music compilation, perhaps those whom he collaborated with have been unjustly overlooked by history.
If Alan Lomax is universally recognized as a pioneer of regional folk music compilation, perhaps those whom he collaborated with, and even exploited or misrepresented for his own purposes, have been unjustly overlooked by history. In Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-42 (Vanderbilt University Press, 336 pp.), editors Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov have collected three key documents tied to Lomax’s work in the Mississippi Delta region during the 1940s that help set the record straight. The collection consists of the sociological and ethnomusicological research of three African American scholars who were affiliated with Fisk University. The most vital of these documents, an untitled manuscript by musicologist John Work, was intended to form the core of a book over 60 years ago, but the manuscript was lost somewhere in the bureaucratic recesses of the Library of Congress (which Lomax was in the process of quitting). Sociologist Lewis Jones’ incomplete essay, “The Mississippi Delta,” and a master’s thesis by Samuel C. Adams were found in the files of the Lomax Archives at Hunter College in New York in 2002. Without quite pointing to a smoking gun for the misplacement of these manuscripts, Gordon, author of Can’t Be Satisfied, a biography of Muddy Waters, and Nemerov (formerly of the Center for Popular Music at MTSU) rely on Lomax’s correspondence to make a subtle case for the folklorist’s opportunism and condescending treatment of Work in particular. Their presentation of the documents, however, is almost completely hands-off. Jones’ unfinished essay, on the changing modes of transportation and community in the Delta country, and Work’s genre and instrumental analyses, along with his transcriptions of over 100 folk and church songs, may indeed be of great value to scholars. Adams’ thesis makes what seem to be rudimentary observations on the ways that modernization eroded the churches’ traditional authority and impacted the county’s folklore, but it too holds value for documenting the particular voices, tales and song lyrics that register such change. For all its merits as a newly recovered sourcebook, this collection could have profited from greater editorial intervention. Contextualizing and evaluating these groundbreaking studies in light of later research and more sophisticated methods, for instance, could only have helped to enlarge the book’s potential readership.

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