John Wesley Work Jr

John Wesley Work Jr

Born: Au­gust 6, 1873, Nash­ville, Ten­nes­see.
Died: Sep­tem­ber 7, 1925, Nash­ville, Ten­nes­see.
Buried: Greenwood Ce­me­te­ry, Nash­ville, Ten­nes­see.

Hymns by John Wesley Work Jr

John Wesley Work Jr.: Preserving the Legacy of African American Spirituals

John Wesley Work Jr. was a trailblazer in the field of African American music, dedicating his life to the collection, preservation, and promotion of the rich heritage of spirituals and folk songs. Born on August 6, 1871, in Nashville, Tennessee, Work grew up immersed in the world of music, with his father serving as the director of a church choir that included members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.

A Life of Learning and Teaching

Work’s passion for knowledge led him to Fisk University, where he excelled in his studies of Latin and history while also nurturing his love for music. After graduating in 1895, he continued his education at Harvard University before returning to his alma mater to serve as a Latin and history instructor in 1904.

As an educator, Work was deeply committed to the success and well-being of his students, even as he navigated conflicts within the Fisk music department. His dedication to teaching extended beyond the classroom, as he later served as the president of Roger Williams University in Nashville until his untimely death in 1925.

Preserving the Songs of the Soul

Perhaps Work’s most enduring legacy is his tireless efforts to collect and preserve the slave songs and spirituals that form the bedrock of African American musical tradition. Together with his wife and brother, Work published two groundbreaking collections: “New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers” (1901) and “New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro” (1907).

These collections not only saved countless spirituals from being lost to history but also introduced the world to timeless classics like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which Work may have helped compose. His own compositions, including “Song of the Warrior” and “Negro Love Song,” further enriched the canon of African American music.

A Legacy That Endures

Despite facing resistance and prejudice, even within the halls of Fisk University, Work remained steadfast in his commitment to celebrating and sharing the beauty of African American music. As the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, he ensured that their voices would be heard across the nation, even as he faced opposition from those who devalued the importance of black folk music.

Today, we remember John Wesley Work Jr. as a pioneering musicologist, a gifted educator, and a champion of African American cultural heritage. His legacy lives on through the spirituals and songs he helped preserve, and through the generations of musicians and scholars who have been inspired by his unwavering dedication to the power of music to uplift, unite, and transform.

Don Chapman

Don Chapman

Composer/arranger Don Chapman has created HYMNDEX as a labor of love to help new generations learn about the lives, legacies and lyrics of historic hymn writers.