Undertaken in 1941–42, this sociomusical survey of Coahoma County was the most ambitious undertaken on the subject of black folklore in Mississippi to that time. John Wesley Work III, an assistant professor of music at Fisk University, had wanted to study folk songs generated by the 23 April 1940 fire in a Natchez dance hall that killed more than two hundred patrons and most of the Royal Creolians Orchestra. Financially troubled, the historically black college could not subsidize Work’s project, so in June 1940 Fisk applied for a General Education Board grant in Work’s name. The application was ultimately denied, but it had cited the Library of Congress’s support for the project. When the Library’s Archive of American Folk Song assistant in charge, Alan Lomax, came to Fisk in May 1941, negotiations for a joint folklore project began.
The Fisk team included Charles S. Johnson, the chair of the social sciences department, and Lewis Jones, an assistant professor of social sciences. Johnson suggested conducting an in-depth, localized survey of all aspects of African American folklife in Coahoma: music, folktales, religious practices, foodways, and occupational lore. Johnson had authored such noted sociological studies as Shadow of the Plantation, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, and Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South. The Coahoma Study was designed to follow the model of Johnson’s earlier work. Statistical surveys and questionnaires would be blended with interviews and sound and film recordings to create a complete portrait of Coahoma’s black communities. The sound recordings, made by Lomax using the Library of Congress’s disc recorder, are the best-known outcome of the study. The project made early recordings of the music of Muddy Waters and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, but investigators focused more on gathering sociological data than on making records. Lomax, Work, Jones, and John Ross of Fisk’s drama department traveled to Clarksdale in late August 1941 for a week’s preliminary fieldwork. Work and Lomax surveyed the musical landscape, while Jones and Ross explored town and plantation culture.
By the end of the first week of September, Work had returned to Nashville. Though his direct participation in the fieldwork was all but over, he did agree to transcribe and analyze the music. Scholars have made different suggestions regarding Work’s absence from the field. Work was the only trained musician on the team and an African American who could give “the help of black scholars to overcome racial suspicion and to facilitate rapport with informants,” as the Library of Congress guide to the Coahoma Study put it. Evidence nonetheless suggests that Lomax did not value Work’s potential contributions to the gathering process, and the two men had a conflict of musical interest. Lomax was at heart a preservationist and had a history of recording older music forms, while Work was more interested in documenting the process whereby newer forms emerged to replace the old.
Jones stayed in the Delta through the cotton harvest, supervising graduate students Samuel C. Adams and Ulysses Young as they surveyed the county’s rural and urban Negro communities. Their field reports were sent to Johnson in Nashville, where they were copied and sent to Lomax in Washington. In September 1941, before the fieldwork was completed, Lomax proposed a book, and in July 1942 he returned his attention to the Coahoma Study. Lomax and Jones spent a month in Mississippi; Work was there for a week.
The book as originally conceived was not completed. Copies of various parts of the manuscripts lay dormant in institutional and private files for the next sixty years. In 2005 the best copies of Jones’s and Work’s manuscripts, along with Adams’s master’s thesis, were published as Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942 by Vanderbilt University Press. These manuscripts are rich in cultural details of life in the Mississippi Delta at a time of rapid change for its African American residents.
- Alan Lomax, The Land Where Blues Began (2002)
- John Wesley Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)