John Wesley Work III was born July 15, 1901 in Tullahoma, Tennessee. As the son of professional musicians, perhaps he was tasked with the responsibility of upholding his family’s rich musical legacy. His grandfather, John Wesley Work, was a notable church choir director in Nashville. His father, John Wesley Work Jr., was a singer, folksong collector, and professor of music, history, and Latin at Fisk. Agnes Haynes Work, his mother, was a singer who also trained the Fisk Jubilee Singers. His brother, Julian Work, went on to become a professional musician and composer. For the Work family, education played an important role in the momentum of their individual careers. Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, was central ground for musicians of their family to develop, with renowned ensembles such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
As a child, Work began his musical training at the Fisk University Laboratory School. He continued his studies at Fisk High School and moved on to Fisk University, where he received his B.A. degree in 1923. Following his studies in Tennessee, Work traveled to New York City to study at the Institute of Musical Art, which later became the Julliard School. At this time, Work studied with Gardner Lamson. In 1927, Work returned to Fisk to begin teaching. During his summers, he would travel to New York to study composition with Howard Tally and Samuel Gardner. Work’s musical aptitude provided him with the opportunity to cross racial barriers by studying with some of the most respected composers in academia during that time. He continued his education at Columbia University, where he obtained his M.A. in 1930. His interest in the music reflective of the African American people inspired him to write a thesis entitled “American Negro Songs and Spirituals.” Following his time at Columbia, Work was awarded two Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowships. These awards provided Work with the opportunity to attend Yale University, where he earned a Bachelor of Music.
Work not only possessed the desire to learn, but wanted to share his knowledge with others as an educator. He returned to Fisk University, serving as a notable professor, chairman of the department of music, and director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1947-1956). During this period, he composed as well as compiled folk music. He also published a number of articles in professional journals. His best known work includes “Plantation Meistersingers” in The Musical Quarterly (Jan. 1940), and “Changing Patterns in Negro Folksongs” in the Journal of American Folklore (Oct. 1940). Around the time these articles were published, Work decided to embark on a two-year field study of the Mississippi Delta. He collaborated with two colleagues at Fisk and the archive on American Folk Music at the Library of Congress. The project led to correspondence with pioneers in the field including Alan Lomax.
John Wesley Work III passed away in 1967. He lived a life of professional accomplishment, and, seeking to improve the lives of people in his community, he devoted his career to education. Education was a passion for John Wesley Work III. This powerful tool gave him a window of escape from many of the traditional setbacks that plagued the Black community. He aimed to help his community utilize this tool to maximize their potential.
–Shenika John Jordan (Christie Finn, ed.)
This biographical essay is made possible because of the Song of America Initiative for African American Classic Song, a collaboration between the Hampsong Foundation and Dr. Scott Piper’s Winter 2016 course “The Art Songs of African American Composers” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“John Wesley Work, III (1901-1967).” Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. <https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196580/>.
Olson, Ted, and Anthony P. Cavender. A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selections from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, 1935-2009. Knoxville, Tenn: The University of Tennessee Press, 2009. (Check out the chapter “John Wesley Work III: Field Recordings of Southern Black Folk Music, 1935-1942“)
Price, Emmett G, Tammy L. Kernodle, and Horace J. Maxile. Encyclopedia of African American Music. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Second Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers
Composer(s): Leslie Adams, Adolphus Hailstork, John Rosamond Johnson, Hall Johnson, Betty Jackson King, Howard Swanson, John W. Work IIIBuy via Videmus