Twenty years after Bruce Nemerov, an audio specialist at Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Popular Music, delved into the world of the late John Work III, he's still producing projects based on the Fisk University music professor's circa-1930s work.
"I met John's widow in the late '80s, and she mentioned some recordings she had at their home in Nashville. We found a cabinet with Professor Work's record collection in it, and we cooked up an idea to do a radio documentary, which was uplinked to NPR in '89," Nemerov says of the aluminum acetate discs that Work used to capture field recordings of Nashville street performer Nathan "Ned" Frazier, gospel groups like the Heavenly Gate Quartet, and guitarist McKinley Morganfield, who was soon to become blues great Muddy Waters.
"As I went through the recordings and Professor Work's papers, I was thinking, this guy has a really deep understanding of folk music, which was surprising, because he was known as a composer, a choir director, and an arranger. I thought, how come nobody knows about this guy's [field work]?" Nemerov recalls.
A few years later, Nemerov met Memphis author Robert Gordon, who was scouring Work's research for details on Muddy Waters for his then-in-progress biography, Can't Be Satisfied.
"I asked Robert to keep a look out for a manuscript I hadn't been able to find, and he located it. At that point, we realized we had a book," Nemerov explains of Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Folklore Story, which examines a massive, mid-20th-century project that Work and other Fisk University researchers collaborated on with Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax, who ultimately received credit for most of the work.
Now, three years after Vanderbilt University Press published Lost Delta Found, Nemerov finally has released John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, a collection of Work's surviving recordings.
"They were in terrible shape, and for years, I didn't think they were publishable. We got funding from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Council, and Jack Pearson, a friend who has a very nice ProTools studio, spent quite a few hours cleaning them up," he notes of the CD, which was released by Spring Fed Records under the aegis of the Arts Center of Cannon County last month.
"This is the final redemption of Professor Work," Nemerov says. "I'm not trying to redeem his reputation, because he didn't really have one. I just want to show a side of him that's been neglected. He had such a unique vision. He was black, he was a trained musician who went to Columbia, Yale, and Juilliard, but he combined that with an appreciation of and love for his own roots music."
To illustrate his point, Nemerov points to the three audio interviews with Morganfield that were conducted at Clarksdale, Mississippi's Stovall Plantation as part of the 1941 Coahoma County study.
"Two were done by Lomax and one by Work," he explains. "It's a very subjective thing, but when I hear Muddy interviewed by Lomax, I hear 'yes sir,' 'no sir,' a lot. Lomax calls Muddy 'boy' in a couple of places, and I hear Muddy pausing between answers, like he's not sure how polite he needs to be with this white Southerner. The Work interview seems very much like two equals sitting and talking. To me, Muddy sounds much more relaxed. His answers pop out, and he's not editing himself. They're just talking like two musicians sitting together."
For more information on John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, go to SpringFedRecords.com.
This weekend, the West Memphis Blues & Rhythm Society is presenting a two-day symposium called Remembering the Plantation Inn.
The nightclub, opened by Morris Berger in 1943, drew Memphis teenagers across the Mississippi to hear local musicians, ranging from Finas Newborn and his sons Phineas and Calvin to Willie Mitchell, hone their craft in gigs that would last 'til sun-up.
Now, veterans of that scene — including Mitchell, Calvin Newborn, trumpeter Wayne Jackson, bouncer Raymond Vega, and more — will join musicologist Dr. David Evans, producer Jim Dickinson, historian Jeff Llewellyn, Berger's daughter, Brenda Berger O'Brien, and author Robert Gordon, who documented the Plantation Inn scene in his book It Came From Memphis, for a discussion on "Ben Branch, Bowlegs, and the Birth of the Memphis Sound," which will take place on Friday, October 19th, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Later that night, Jackson and the P.I. Blues Band will take the stage for the Plantation Inn Tribute Gala. Saturday's festivities include the Plantation Inn Main Stage Amateur Blues & Rhythm Contest. All of Remembering the Plantation Inn will take place at Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis. For registration and more information, go to WestMemphisBlues.com.