Willis Laurence James – MBC visits the Spelman College Archives
Last week, two members of our staff had the chance to visit the Archives at Spelman, a Historically Black College in Atlanta, Georgia. They were mainly in search of works by Willis Laurence James, who was a composer on the faculty of Spelman College for over three decades.
James later studied at the Chicago Musical College, and began his teaching career at Leland College in Baker, Louisiana. When he was in Louisiana, he began collecting African American folklore and folksongs, especially along the levees of the Mississippi River. His interest in African American folksongs stayed with him for the rest of his life; he arranged some for formal performance ensembles, and the songs also influenced his original compositions.
James began teaching at Spelman College in 1933, and he stayed there for the remainder of his career. While at Spelman, he served as the chairman of the music department, and the director of the Spelman College Glee Club. Though still an active lecturer and teacher, James passed away in December of 1966. He is well remembered at Spelman College, and our staff was honored to have the chance to visit his collection in their archive.
Our thanks to the Spelman College Archive staff, especially Ms. Kassandra Ware, for their kind assistance.
This morning in church we sang “Guide My Feet”, from the Willis James collection. This got me thinking about Dr. James and remembering around 1960-64 I used to hear on radio station WBAI the program “Music of the World’s People’s” with Dr. Willis James. This was immensely thrilling to me at twelve years old, and guided me toward a lifelong amateur interest in ethnomusicology (professionally I am a biologist). Anyway, I was wondering if you knew about these recordings and if it might be possible to obtain a copy somewhere. Any assistance would be deeply appreciated. Thank you!
My deep apologies for this very late response!
The only recordings by Dr. James that I can find that are very accessible are through Amazon Music. You can see a whole list here:
Or were you interested more broadly in the “Music of the World’s People”? There are lots of “world music” albums and playlists available online, though I am not sure if Dr. James’s program itself is available. But there is so much newer world music to explore these days, too!
I hope this is helpful!