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Monday, August 29, 2005

Book Says Alan Lomax Neglected Black Scholars

By MARC WEINGARTEN Published: August 29, 2005 A new book asserts that the American folklorist Alan Lomax gave short shrift to the work of black scholars who accompanied him on now legendary trips to the Mississippi Delta to record seminal blues artists like Muddy Waters. Lomax's recordings for the Library of Congress, made during his travels through the South in the 1930's and 40's, make up perhaps the greatest repository of American vernacular music ever compiled. But he was not alone on some of those trips. Three African-American scholars from Fisk University in Nashville, a black college founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves, accompanied him on two pivotal trips to Coahoma County in Mississippi in 1941 and 1942. And they continued to work on the project after Lomax left the Library of Congress. But Lomax, in his critically praised 1993 memoir, "The Land Where the Blues Began" (Pantheon Books), gives the three only a few cursory mentions, one in the acknowledgments. In the memoir, Lomax, who died in 2002, also conflates the two Coahoma County trips into a single trip. In the new book, "Lost Delta Found" (Vanderbilt University Press), the editors, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov try to set the record straight by publishing the long-forgotten manuscripts of the Fisk scholars: John W. Work III, a composer and musicologist; Lewis Wade Jones, a sociologist; and Samuel C. Adams Jr., a graduate student. Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov say these manuscripts provide a more balanced picture of the Coahoma County research as well as a more nuanced analysis of the Jim Crow South than is to be found in Lomax's memoir. Published with the three Fisk manuscripts are 158 songs transcribed by Work, ranging from the familiar ("Shoo Fly," "Shortnin' Bread") to the whimsically obscure ("Stuball," "I Am a Funny Little Dutch Girl"). "Work's transcriptions show us that Mississippi wasn't only about the blues," said Mr. Nemerov, a former audio specialist at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, who unearthed about two-thirds of Work's hand-written manuscript at Fisk University in 1989 and wrote about it in The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. "There are children's songs and other social songs that serve no purpose other than for neighbors to entertain each other." According to "Lost Delta Found," it was Work, the leader of the Fisk research team, who initiated the Mississippi study when he applied to the Library of Congress for money to support a recording trip to Natchez. Alerted to Work's interest in Southern vernacular music, Lomax, who ran the library's Archive of American Song, entered the picture and, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov say, diverted the project to Coahoma. Once the team arrived in Coahoma, they were told of a blues singer who worked as a farmhand on Col. Howard Stovall's plantation. That farmhand turned out to be McKinley Morganfield, a k a Muddy Waters. Lomax wrote extensively of the Coahoma Country trips in "The Land Where the Blues Began," published long after the fact, but the research was supposed to have been jointly published some five decades earlier by Fisk University and the Library of Congress. The Fisk scholars' manuscripts were somehow lost after they were sent to the Library of Congress in 1943 by Work, who died in 1967, and have been published for the first time in "Lost Delta Found." "Lost Delta Found" is an outgrowth of Mr. Gordon's research for his 2002 biography "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters" (Little, Brown). Tipped off in the late 1990's by Mr. Nemerov to Work's contributions, Mr. Gordon sifted through Lomax's vast archive at Hunter College in New York, where, after much burrowing, he found a manuscript stuffed in the back of a file cabinet in a powder-blue cover with Lewis Wade Jones's name on it. Also written on the cover were the words "Property of Fisk University." When Mr. Gordon matched up the document to the incomplete, hand-written manuscript that Mr. Nemerov had unearthed, he knew he had discovered a significant contribution to Southern folkloric scholarship. The document was a revelation to Mr. Gordon, describing in vivid detail the ways Coahoma County's residents worked, played and practiced religion. He said Work's manuscript, in particular, is a crucial primer on the region's musical practices, from sermons to children's songs - his careful academic analysis leavened with interviews with the county's citizens. To me, Work is important because he's an academic who sees the value of homegrown, vernacular material," Mr. Gordon said. "Most academics were ashamed of that." Work went into the Coahoma County project with an open mind, Mr. Gordon added. Unlike Lomax, Work took note of well-spoken blacks who owned land, and the fact that spirituals were already on the wane in certain parts of Mississippi - both of which ran counter to Lomax's assumptions about the Southern black man, Mr. Gordon said. "That's the biggest difference between Work's assessment of the South and Lomax's evaluations in his own book," Mr. Gordon said. "One documented what was there, the other focused on what he'd expected to find. Lomax was disappointed to discover that blacks owned land, because it didn't conform to his vision of the South." According to the book, Lomax used a photograph of a sharecropper's cabin in his book without giving proper credit to Work. The picture was found in the manuscript of Mr. Adams, the Fisk graduate student. Asked to comment on "Lost Delta Found," Ellen Harold, an editor and translator at the Alan Lomax Archive at Hunter College and Mr. Lomax's niece, said, "I feel the book makes claims and innuendoes that are ridiculous." "Work wasn't neglected," she added. "Perhaps he would have been a greater folklorist had he had more support. But he had a tenured position at Fisk as chairman of the music department, and Alan never had an academic position. I just don't see him as much of a victim. Gordon and Nemerov claim that Alan used a photograph of Work's that wasn't credited, but I don't see how they can say with certainty that it was Work's." Ms. Harold said she believed that Work had a copy of the manuscript all along, but never bothered to have it published. "My sense is that Work wasn't the most organized person," she said. "He requested the manuscript from the Library of Congress in 1958, and the correspondence from the Library doesn't indicate in any way that the manuscript had been lost or misplaced. He had 20 years to write about the project; he just never did." Ms. Harold said she did not know how the Fisk manuscript wound up in Mr. Lomax's archive. Regardless of the murky circumstances surrounding the mysterious loss and re-appearance of the Fisk research, Mr. Gordon said he hoped that "Lost Delta Found" would draw people to Work's scholarship. "It's really beautiful work," said Mr. Gordon, "and there's a lot more of it." Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov would like to publish a second volume of Work's essays and speeches. As for Lomax and his legacy, Mr. Gordon is of two minds. "I still believe that Lomax was a great folklorist," Mr. Gordon said. "But I do wonder why he had so much trouble acknowledging his peers, especially given the fact that they were African-American. Why would he miss that opportunity?"


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