Academic journal article The Hymn

Three Generations of Works and Their Contributions to Congregational Singing

Academic journal article The Hymn

Three Generations of Works and Their Contributions to Congregational Singing

Article excerpt

Much has been written about the Work family of musicians, especially John Wesley Work (1853?-1918), his son John Wesley Work (1872?-1925), and his son John Wesley Work (1901-1967)-the three are now known as Work I, Work II, and Work III. Another of Work Fs sons was Frederick Jerome Work (1878?-1942), about whom less has been written.1 This article shows that Frederick Work deserves recognition as a collector, arranger, and composer, and it examines the possibility that he composed Go Tell It On The Mountain. It also describes a special day in Frederick Work's career, when 400 of "his children" sang spirituals for Albert Einstein.2

The First Generation

Born a slave in Kentucky, Work I learned about music in New Orleans. By 1871, he had moved to Nashville and married Samuella Boyd, daughter of Stephen Boyd- "an ambitions Black man who had bought his wife and children" from their owners prior to the Civil War.3 At Nelson Merry's church, where Work I led the singing, several members of the choir were original Fisk Jubilee Singers. "Work I provided his daughter, Jennie, the opportunity to study pipe organ and music theory at an early age so that she could assist him in the notation of his compositions and the accompaniment of the church choir."4 Although possibly none of these notations has survived, Work Fs legacy extends from his leadership of the choir and the musical home which he and Samuella provided for their children.5

Work II at Fisk University

Work II graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, where he was named class poet as well as valedictorian. He then received his Master of Arts degree from Fisk in 1898 and married Agnes Morris Haynes in the Fisk Memorial Chapel on April 26, 1899. An accomplished singer, Agnes was already employed as "Assistant in Vocal Music and Jubilee Singing" in the Fisk music department.

Near the end of 1899, the president of Fisk University announced that a new company, a successor of the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers, had been formed "under the direction and leadership of Mr. John W. Work, A. M. and Mrs. Agnes M. Work, who are teachers in the University." President Cravath linked the new company's mission to the need for a new building for the Department of Music.7

The new Fisk Jubilee Singers toured in Tennessee, Alabama, and New York during 1899 and continued into the summer of 1901, and they toured again for four months in 1903. After that, Work II's interests and those of university officials turned toward a Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, which became very successful.

Contributing to the decline of mixed-chorus Jubilee singing at Fisk was the fact that during 1895-1901 (the exact years are uncertain), Mr. and Mrs. Work II resided in Tullahoma, Tennessee, some eighty miles from Fisk University. Work II taught there in a public school in 1895, and Work III was born there in 1901. Another source of difficulty was competition with numerous copycat Jubilee clubs as well as continuing strained relations with Jennie Asenath Robinson. Robinson, the chair of the Fisk music department, is said to have had little interest in Negro folk music, and she attracted new members to her department who held similar views. Robinson had graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1887 and began her work at Fisk that same year; by 1916-1917, the seven department members were all graduates of Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Frederick Jerome Work at Fisk University

While Work II was away on tour, his younger brother, Frederick, while still a student, was busy collecting and arranging folk songs, and on several occasions, Frederick led the singing at Fisk University Chapel. It appears that in 1900 and 1901, he was paid by the University "during two summer vacations to go to camp meetings and other religious gatherings for the purpose of setting out in musical notation the new or unfamiliar spirituelles [spirituals] as sung by the common people and so secure them for publication and permanency. …

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