John Wesley Work, Jr.

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John Wesley Work, Jr. (August 6, 1871[1] or 1873[2] - September 7, 1925) was the first African-American collector of folk songs and spirituals,[1] and also a choral director, educationalist and songwriter.[2] He is now sometimes known as John Wesley Work II, to distinguish him from his son, John Wesley Work III.

He was born in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of Samuella and John Wesley Work,[2] who was director of a church choir, some of whose members were also in the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.[1] John Wesley Work, Jr. attended Fisk University, where he organised singing groups and studied Latin and history, graduating in 1895. He then taught in Tullahoma, Tennessee, studied at Harvard University, and worked in the library at Fisk, before taking an appointment as a Latin and history instructor at Fisk in 1904.[1][2]

He married Agnes Haynes in 1899. Working with his wife and his brother, Frederick Jerome Work, he began collecting slave songs and spirituals, publishing them as New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901) and New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907). The latter book included the first publication of "Go Tell It on the Mountain", which he may have had a hand in composing.[1][2] His other songs included "Song of the Warrior", "If Only You Were Here", "Negro Lullaby", and "Negro Love Song". He also established the music publishing company, Work Brothers and Hart.[2]

As the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, he was responsible for taking them on tour each year. However, because of negative feelings toward black folk music at Fisk, he was forced to resign his post there in 1923. He then served as president of Roger Williams University in Nashville, until his death in 1925.[1]

John and Agnes Work had six children, of whom John Wesley Work III (1901-67) also worked as the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and as a song collector and composer.


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