John Wesley Work III

1901 - 1967



John Wesley Work III was a composer, educator, choral director, musicologist, and scholar of African-American folklore and music.

He was born on July 15, 1901, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, to a family of professional musicians. His grandfather, John Wesley Work, was a church choir director in Nashville, where he wrote and arranged music for his choirs. Some of his choristers were members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. His father, John Wesley Work, Jr., was a singer, folksong collector, and professor of music, Latin, and history at Fisk, and his mother, Agnes Haynes Work, was a singer who helped train the Fisk group.

Work began his musical training at the Fisk University Laboratory School, moving on to the Fisk High School and then the university, where he received a B.A. degree in 1923. After graduation, he attended the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (now the Juilliard School of Music). He returned to Fisk and began teaching in 1927. In 1930 he received an M.A. degree from Columbia University with his thesis American Negro Songs and Spirituals. During a leave from Fisk, he obtained a B.Mus. degree from Yale University in 1933.

He became director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1946.

Work began composing while still in high school and continued throughout his career, completing over one hundred compositions in a variety of musical forms — for full orchestra, piano, chamber ensemble, violin and organ — but his largest output was in choral and solo-voice music. He was awarded first prize in the 1946 competition of the Federation of American Composers for his cantata The Singers, and in 1947 he received an award from the National Association of Negro Musicians. In 1963 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Fisk University.