John Wesley Work, Jr. was the first African-American collector of folk songs and spirituals, and also a choral director, educationalist and songwriter. He is now sometimes known as John Wesley Work II, to distinguish him from his son, John Wesley Work III. He was born in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of Samuella and John Wesley Work, who was director of a church choir, some of whose members were also in the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. John Wesley Work, Jr. attended Fisk University, where he organised singing groups and studied Latin and history, graduating in 1895. He then taught in Tullahoma, Tennessee, studied at Harvard University, and worked in the library at Fisk, before taking an appointment as a Latin and history instructor at Fisk in 1904.