In some ways, it's hard to imagine two genres more diametrically opposed than gospel music and the blues.
Gospel is meant to be the sound of salvation, and much of gospel music specifically finds that salvation in a crowd. There have been many successful solo gospel artists, but it is a genre more characterized by groups than individuals. Think harmonies. Think call-and-response. Think rapture and joy. Think the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Staple Singers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Sensational Nightingales and the Wynan Family.
Blues, on the other hand, is a music for loners. It's the sound of a lonely voice as far from salvation as a soul can get. It should surprise no one that the greatest legend to emerge from the field of the blues is the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the chance to be a great guitarist.
And yet, and yet...
The overlap between gospel and the blues is great. And nowhere did that overlap express itself more than in the work of musicologist John Work III.
Work's father, as we learned last week, had helped re-establish gospel music as an honorable genre during the early part of the 20th century, through his work at Fisk University, the black school which was formed just months after the end of the Civil War. When John Work III came along, 18 months after the dawn of the 20th century, no one could know that his career as a composer, archivist and musical scholar would eclipse that of his father a few decades later.
The younger Work got his start as a composer while he was still in his teens. He went to Fisk High School and then Fisk University, achieving his degree in 1923. After a short stint at the New York school which would eventually become Juilliard, he returned to Fisk - this time as a teacher and choral director. But he continued to study in New York during the summers, and eventually secured an M.A. from Columbia University. Given his father's work preserving the black gospel music of American slaves, it seems natural that his thesis was on "American Negro Songs and Spirituals." He also continued to compose, including many gospel spirituals.
During the 1940s, Work came together with another musical folklorist, Alan Lomax, to chronicle the music of Coahoma County, Miss., and was the man who led Lomax to essential blues pioneers like Son House. It was also Work who discovered an itinerant musician named McKinley Morganfield, then playing with an outfit called the Sons Sims Four. McKinley Morganfield would eventually change his name to Muddy Waters and become one of the most important figures in establishing the genre of the blues.
Whether helping to compose important gospel songs like "Go Tell It On the Mountain," or recording blues giants like Waters and House and gospel greats like the Fairfield Four, John Work III's work is a divine contribution to the history of American music. That his name isn't better known to lovers of gospel and the blues is devilishly wrong.
Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, promoting spiritual and religious expression throughout Colorado.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.