Lost Delta Found: The Fisk University- Library Of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942
What a maddening, teeth-gnashing, discouraging thing this book is, no matter how grateful readers will be to editors Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov for its exhumation. The story behind — and of — Lost Delta Found would make a rich text for a film, surveying as it does the world of black America just before World War II, academic intrigue, and the first discovery by ears beyond the Mississippi Delta of Muddy Water (the plural came later).
On April 23, 1940, a nightclub in Natchez, Mississippi, was engulfed in flames, killing 200 and maiming more. John W. Work, a second-generation music professor at Fisk University in Nashville, correctly guessed that the event would spawn a variety of topical songs, and that studying their spread across the region a year later would prove valuable.
And how. Published 60 years later, the study that emerged is an irreplaceable snapshot of a time, place, and people long gone. That it went unfinished, and was so recently rediscovered, is another matter entirely.
Work was obliged to seek modest funding for this study from the white university president who would twice pass him over for the department chair. Ultimately, for reasons of academic prestige, money, and race, Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress was brought in (a marriage of convenience; each could go where the other would be unwelcome). Work’s collaborators were both graduate students who went on to eminent careers, as well.
Lomax’s account of the study was published in 1993 as The Land Where The Blues Began; he combined two research trips into one, perhaps the result of the hiatus between study and publication, and borrowed liberally from the unpublished works of his collaborators. Robert Gordon tracked down the original manuscripts during the course of his work on a biography of Muddy Waters. He found the only copies, not lost in the Library of Congress, nor misfiled at Fisk University, but buried in the mixed-up files of Alan Lomax.
Most of Lost Delta Found is fairly approachable academic writing, revealing in several layers on its own terms. Work spent a great deal of time and energy carefully transcribing the blues (and at least one sermon) recorded on these trips; Jones and Adams offer a more detailed and nuanced view of Coahoma County. Of particular interest is their conception of the black community as a multi-class structure, and of the tension between secular and profane songs within the community. Lomax, the editors suggest, was interested only in certain sounds and certain kinds of stories.
Needless to stay, the Mississippi Delta — and the entire United States — were about to be radically transformed by the focus and migration of World War II. The music would change, the plantation system would change, the Delta economy would change, Muddy Waters would move to Chicago, and the Fisk University researchers would move on to other pursuits (Adams ended up an ambassador to the Republic of Niger).
That last is one of the real pities of this book. Past the passionate and provocative books of Leroi Jones and Albert Murray (and W.C. Handy’s autobiography), I can think of no studies of the blues written by African-Americans. Blues research came largely to be defined by the work of white folklorists in the 1950s and 1960s. Only the footnotes in this book (a footnote itself, alas) suggest how much was done — and might have been done, had this pioneering study inspired more, and more detailed, work.