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Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University –Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942

Edited by Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov

Vanderbilt University Press, 343 pp., $34.95

McKinley Morganfield’s childhood home still stands, a square timber box plopped down in the middle of the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Miss., in Coahoma County. In 1918, when the 3-year-old orphan and his grandmother arrived in the area, they were nearly the only people settled there: “We had one house close to us, and then the next one would’ve been a mile,” he recalled. “If you got sick, you could holler and wouldn’t nobody hear you.” And besides Col. Stovall, who took his annual percentage of the cotton harvest, nobody seems to have paid much attention to Muddy Waters, as Morganfield preferred to be called, until Alan Lomax and a team of researchers from Fisk University came to visit in 1941 on a mission to develop, for academic and historical purposes, “a practical working knowledge of the musical life of the people.” A survey they filled out on his behalf—Waters, like most sharecroppers, was illiterate—says much about life in the Delta between the wars.

“The family farms 8 acres on shares, owns no work stock, no cattle, 4 hogs, 7 chickens…and jointly clears between $100 and $300 dollars per year after paying commissary debts,” the researchers reported. “All family members belong to the Century Burial Association.” Life was hard, but not mean. During the summer “lay-by,” the time between the planting of cotton and the harvest, recreational activities were plentiful, and though these were “divided into those for the sinful and those for the religious people,” many Delta residents, including the Morganfields, would have had ample experience with both. “Muddy Water[s] would like to join the church,” wrote John Work, one of the Fisk researchers, “but to do so would mean abandoning his guitar—a sacrifice too dear to make now.”

Lomax eventually published his account of the trip, in 1993’s The Land Where the Blues Began, which remains a classic account of prewar life in the South despite a number of glaring errors, including the conflation of two trips into one. Rightfully, he took credit for discovering such legends as Waters, Son House, and Honeyboy Edwards, all of whom owed their central role in the ’50s blues revival to him. Less well known, however, are his co-researchers, Fisk instructors John Wesley Work III and Lewis Jones and graduate student Samuel C. Adams Jr. (who would serve as ambassador to Niger in the late ’60s).

According to Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov, editors of Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, Lomax excised the contributions of his African-American colleagues almost entirely from his book. This is not exactly correct—Jones makes a large number of appearances in The Land Where the Blues Began—but it is true that Lomax devalued their role, referring to Jones, his “unflappable bronzed Dante,” as merely a “guide and mentor on my return to the Southern netherworld.” Lomax’s failure to recognize Work, Jones, and Adams as professional equals, Gordon and Nemerov write, resulted in “an appealing but static and nostalgic portrait of black Southern America.” Available now after being lost for 60 years—Gordon discovered the files in Lomax’s archives while researching a Muddy Waters biography—the papers are reproduced unedited in Lost Delta Found, including three sociological surveys and sheaves of original musical transcriptions.

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Before traveling south from Washington, D.C., where he worked at the Library of Congress, Lomax reported: “This marks the first occasion on which a great Negro university has officially dedicated itself to the study and publication of Negro folk-songs.” But contrary to Lomax’s representation in The Land Where the Blues Began, the idea for the study originated with Work, not Lomax. In 1940, a great fire swept through a dance hall in Natchez, Miss., killing two hundred African-Americans and earning front-page headlines across the country. Work, a prolific musicologist focusing on spirituals and African-American folk songs, asked the Fisk president for funds to study the music he assumed would be written and performed at the fire’s one-year anniversary. “To the abundance of folklore natural to the community, a new body of lore is due to be added,” wrote Work. “It is the ballads and music arising out of the holocaust of last April…the impact of this terrible fire with its religious implications on the minds and imaginations of the unlettered Negroes of that region must of necessity be of such weight as to stimulate the creation of a tremendous body of folk expression.” (He would be proved correct, first by local musicians and then in more historical treatments such as John Lee Hooker’s misdated “Disaster of ’36” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Natchez Burnin’.”)

But the researchers lacked funding, and for that, the president said, it would best for Work to get in touch with the Library of Congress, where Lomax was leading the development of the Archive of American Folk Song. (His father, John Lomax, was a noted Library of Congress ethnomusicologist, and the younger Lomax had trained and traveled with him extensively.) He was eager to join Work’s project because, as he relates in The Land Where the Blues Began “it was clear that Southern blacks would not readily confide in a white folklorist.”

The race issue immediately created a balance-of-power problem. Work and the other Fisk scholars needed Lomax, and Lomax needed entree into African-American society. But the scholars also needed Lomax, as a white man, to vouch for their presence on the plantations, the owners of which were constantly on guard against outside “agitators.” “Every Negro got to have his white man, his boss, to look after him when he get in trouble with the white world,” Jones explained to an African-American student from the North. Lomax “is my white man on this trip.” Lomax, then, patron in more ways than one, easily took over leadership of the study. In the taped interviews of Muddy Waters, for instance, available on CD as The Complete Plantation Recordings, one can hear Lomax dominating—and sometimes taking over from Work—a series of conversations with an obviously uncomfortable Waters. (Lomax: “Is [Son] House a better player than [Robert] Johnson is, you think?” Waters: “I think they both about equal.”)

There were differences, too, in focus, especially when it came to the use of the oversized portable recording device brought from Washington. Classic spirituals such as “You Got to Stand Your Damnation” and “Motherless Children Has a Hard Time” were “fast disappearing from the service,” wrote Work, given up to a new style popularized by Thomas Dorsey, a Chicago musician who worked with Ma Rainey and claimed to have “originated gospel harmony.” The spirituals that survived adopted gospel’s excitable pacings: “The singers’ lusty voices,” Work wrote about one such performance, “are supplemented by hundreds of hands clapping, stamping of feet, tambourines, guitar, and a style of piano-playing which either imitates ‘boogie-woogie’ at its ‘hottest’—or started it.”

But even as Work’s account explains why gospel was quickly displacing spirituals, his collection of musical transcriptions is heavily weighted in favor of the latter. Lomax, obsessed with authenticity and the “true” roots of African-American culture, wanted to record only the spirituals. Work deferred to the white man from Washington, but there are hints of serious dissatisfaction in his final report. “The fading-out of spirituals from an active place in the folk-church,” wrote Work, “deplorable as it might be to the rest of the country, is simply explained.” Most important was the wide-scale introduction of pianos into Southern churches, which made it much easier for congregants to sing both traditional hymns and the modern gospels. And, as Work reported, few of the spirituals listed were actually recorded during church services. Most “were sung upon the request of the recorders”—which is to say Lomax. Gordon and Nemerov surmise that Work, by discussing at length spirituals’ demise, then listing and transcribing nearly a hundred of them, “may be helping the reader understand that Lomax’s prejudices ‘cooked the data.’”

Work’s musical transcriptions take up the greatest bulk of Lost Delta Found. Where local pronunciation or grammar might confuse (“winder dow” for “window,” for instance), Work, a proper academic, provided translation. Most impressive, however, is his musical transcription of a “blues sermon” given by the Rev. C.H. Savage at what must have been a raucous plantation revival. As he did with gospel, Work found African-American secular music to have a heavy influence on the preacher’s style: “Ev’ry brook of water done gone!/All the grass is parched away!/Let us divide the lan’ between ourselves/Start at the fork o’ the road/And you go one way and I’ll go the other way,” sang Savage using a melody and structure recognizable as the blues, “the melody steadily ris[ing] in pitch as the sermon progresses and the spirit becomes more intense,” as Work explained. And what spirit! “They forgot our Gawd! They forgot our Gawd!” Savage shouted, his voice reaching first to the heavens, then low into the fiery depths. “They built another Gawd about which we spoke be-fo’/An they built him out o’ precious stones, marble an’ gol’.” And so it continues, for 11 pages before the assembled members, and the readers, are ready to give up their sinful ways, get happy, and return to the bosom of Abraham. Work spent three weeks completing this single transcription, even inventing his own musical notation to designate space where “the tone not only drops in pitch and intensity but becomes semi-speech.”

Muddy Waters himself once tried his hand at preaching, but unfortunately none of his sermons survive. It was what Waters took out of the church, not what he put into it, that first attracted Lomax to Stovall’s plantation. Gordon and Nemerov make a strong case that Lomax shortchanged Work, Jones, and Adams in the process, but in the end it is hard to feel too angry about it. Gospel music did survive, after all, and as this book lovingly details, much useful knowledge of early spirituals comes from Lomax’s dogged efforts. For Waters, the strange visitors with their papers and recording device foreshadowed successes to come. As he reasoned, if he was good enough for a white man from Washington, he was definitely good enough for the booming clubs in Chicago. For that reason, and many others, the Coahoma County Survey deserves to be credited as a great success. And now it can be credited to all its participants.CP