NASHVILLE - When people say John Work III had "big ears," they're not being unkind.
Work, who died in 1967 at age 65, had a gift for finding and collecting black folk music. He traveled the South recording blues singers, work songs, ballads, church choirs, dance tunes, whatever struck him as showing the evolution of black music.
Yet what might be his greatest achievement went unnoticed for 60 years, stashed in a file cabinet at Hunter College in New York.
Now, with the opening of a new exhibit on Work's life at Fisk University and a companion CD, some say Work is finally getting his due.
"He was seeking out music that many African-American academics at the time had no use for," said Evan Hatch, a folklorist who helped compile the exhibit, "The Beautiful Music That Surrounds You," which runs through May 11.
A classically trained musician and composer, Work taught at Fisk University, a black college founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves. He also directed the school's famed Jubilee Singers and ran its music department.
He came from a family of musicians and scholars (his father, John W. Work Jr., wrote the lyrics to the popular black spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain"), but unlike his family and some black academics of his day, he embraced secular music as worthy of study.
"To him, this raw, ragged music was as valid as Mozart," said Bruce Nemerov, who teamed with Hatch to co-produce "John Work, III: Recording Black Culture," a CD of Work's field recordings released last year. Nemerov, a former audio specialist at Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Popular Music, also wrote the disc's Grammy-winning liner notes.
Work did most of his folk collecting on his own time and at his own expense. He had an exceptional ear and could transcribe into musical notation tunes he heard whistled on the street. While waiting at a train station in Macon, Ga., he heard a man singing on the platform and captured an original lyrical blues called "Ain't Gonna Drink No Mo'. "
"I can remember growing up and having various groups come into the home to sing for him," recalled his son, Frederick T. Work, an attorney in Gary, Ind. "He also went to Haiti and spent what seemed an eternity to us as boys. I think he spent an entire summer there researching and collecting native music from Haiti."
Work was already an established composer when he and two other Fisk researchers - sociologist Lewis Wade Jones and graduate student Samuel C. Adams Jr. - joined the renowned folklorist Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress for a field study of the Mississippi Delta in 1941 and '42.
The men focused 70 miles south of Memphis on Mississippi's Coahoma County, where they gathered data on everything from automobile ownership to jukebox selections. But their greatest contribution would be to popular music. They collected more than 150 songs, including early recordings by future blues greats Son House and Muddy Waters.
"They sent those musicians on a professional path," Hatch said. Indeed, Waters would soon head to Chicago, where he switched to electric guitar and left a huge mark on blues and rock music.
The Coahoma County findings were to be published jointly by Fisk University and the Library of Congress, but Work's manuscripts along with those of Jones and Adams were inexplicably lost or misplaced in Washington. Most of what was known of the landmark study came from Lomax's papers and his 1993 memoir, "The Land Where the Blues Began."
"It's kind of a romantic view of everything," Nemerov said of the book. "If all we had was Lomax's view of black culture of the 1930s and '40s . . . we would think that the only black music was in prisons or cotton fields being sung by black people oppressed by cruel white plantation owners."
While working on a biography of Waters in the late '90s, author Robert Gordon found most of the lost manuscripts in a file cabinet at the Alan Lomax Archive in New York. He and Nemerov edited them for a 2005 book, "Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942." The book contains Work's transcriptions as well as the three men's narratives about the Delta.
In the preface, Gordon said that the information compiled by the black researchers - as opposed to Lomax, who was white - was like "finding old pictures of someone you've always known. The pictures reveal new aspects of an old friend."