John Wesley Work III was a voracious and careful listener and student of music, able to analyze different styles and discuss their components and qualities with learned insight and sensitivity. Fortunately for us, nearly 70 years after the fact, he not only paid close attention to the music, but also lugged around a bulky tape recorder to capture it as it happened.
He didn’t capture it from professional musicians in studio conditions, making records for commercial release. Work went directly to the source: church congregations, amateur singing groups, a street musician at a bus stop, a work crew on a back road. Most of the people he recorded would not go on to any measure of broader renown, but he wasn’t looking for the next big star. He was trying to understand the music of a people in a specific place and time, the South of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. He ended up recording, quite literally, the soundtrack of people’s lives.