Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's So Sad to See Work Go Underappreciated

Posted By on Wed, May 13, 2009 at 6:14 PM

I often wonder if The Tennessean could make our fair city seem any more bland.  See today's
click to enlarge The John Work House, in Its Current State
  • The John Work House, in Its Current State
story, which is, in part about Fisk's efforts to get stimulus funding to refurbish John Work's House.

Who's John Work, you ask?  And why should anyone care if his house is refurbished?

If you look to The Tennessean for answers, you learn, "Down the street at Fisk University, the windows of the John Wesley Work House, which belonged to the former director of the Jubilee Singers, are boarded up."

Saying that John Work was the former director of the Jubilee Singers is like saying that Hooters is a place you can go for food.  It's true, but it's not the whole story.

Lucky for y'all, I am here to fill you in.

The first Nashville John Work organized and trained an African American choir at the First Baptist Church back before the Civil War.  In the choir were three people who would go on to be among the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.  His sons, John and Frederick, attended Fisk and this son John reorganized the Fisk Jubilee Singers, taught history, Latin, and music, and led Fisk's male quartet, which made early recordings for Victor, Edison, and Columbia.

And these were not even the most awesome John Works to live in our city.  No, I believe that distinction must go to John Work the third, who, after he went to work at Fisk, lived in the house up for possible renovation.  Not only did Work direct the Jubilee singers, he transcribed a great deal of rural African American folk music (though, sadly, large parts of that collection appear to have been lost) and he made some of the earliest field recordings of black Nashvillians.

And, as Bruce Nemerov and Robert Gordon tell us in Lost Delta Found, "Work also is the first academic trained in the European tradition to express appreciation for the purely musical values displayed in the accompaniments to blues song."  In other words, even though he was a smartypants at a time when smartypantses believed the blues to be the purview of low talent hacks and uneducated rural folks who were just making noise, Work saw it for the amazing art form it is.

And then... And then, folks, John Work was there the very first time McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield ever recorded.  How do you leave that out?  John Work is there the first time Muddy Waters ever hears his own voice played back to him and you don't even mention it?

But that's not even the end of the Works' ties with Nashville.  John Work the third had a couple of sons, who you will be unsurprised to learn are named John and Frederick, who were raised in that house.

You may know this Frederick Work.  He desegregated the Vanderbilt Law School.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with this John and Frederick Work who have a casually graceful way of teasing each other that surely comes from having a brother you deeply love for six or seven decades.  And they told me that house was always full of people, famous musicians and authors and artists, and not so famous, but interesting people, professors, students, neighborhood folks, and that there was always food and music and good times.

I love the idea of that house being refurbished and preserved for future generations, being filled with music and people again.  So much of our history here in Nashville gets told by what used to be.  That's where the Vine Street Temple used to be.  That's where the streetcar used to go.  That's where the fort was.

It'd be so nice to have one cool thing that still is.

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