Zora Neale Hurston

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston.

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston.

Today we are highlighting Zora Neale Hurston and her contributions to the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida. Make sure to check out Hurston’s audio recordings below and the new Zora Neale Hurston podcast.

Zora Neale Hurston was an African-American novelist and accomplished anthropologist whose rich literary work has inspired generations of readers. By 1938, she had already published Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Despite her reputation as a writer, there exists another side to Hurston’s career. In 1938 and 1939, during the Great Depression, Hurston worked as a folklorist and contributor to the Florida division of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Through her work with the FWP, Hurston captured stories, songs, traditions and histories from African-Americans in small communities across Florida, whose stories often failed to make it into the histories of that time period.

The Works Progress Administration – after 1939, the Works Projects Administration – was a work-relief program created in 1935 by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. It had employed over 8.5 million people by its demise in 1943. One of its programs was the (FWP), which included a folklore section. The staff conducted fieldwork and recorded songs, traditions, and stories across the nation.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen - Eatonville, Florida.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen – Eatonville, Florida.

In 1939, Hurston went to a turpentine camp near Cross City in Dixie County, Florida, to find candidates for recording interviews, songs and life histories of interesting everyday people. Hurston’s essay, “Turpentine,” traced her travels through the pine forests with an African-American “woods rider” named John McFarlin. Her work on Florida’s turpentine camps is still considered authoritative. Back in Jacksonville, Hurston’s final major contribution to the Florida FWP was to arrange a recording session at the Clara White Mission. The African-American participants told stories and sang or chanted traditional music. Hurston also sang 18 songs herself, mostly work songs and folk songs.

“Dat Old Black Gal” is a railroad spiking song that Hurston learned near Miami from Max Ford, the singing liner on the construction crew. Workers would hammer the spikes securing the rails to their cross-ties in rhythm with the song.

Dat Old Black Gal

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Next is a juke song that Hurston learned on the East coast of Florida. She sings “Halimuhfack,” then describes her process for learning songs.

Halimuhfack

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Hurston sings “Let the Deal Go Down,” a gambling song she collected at the Bostwick turpentine still near Palatka, Florida. The men sang the song while playing the card game called George Skin, “the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South.”

Let the Deal Go Down

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“Let’s Shake It,” is a track-lining chant that Hurston learned at a railroad camp in Callahan, Florida.

Let’s Shake It

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The track-lining rhythm, “Mule on the Mountain,” was the most widely-distributed work song in the United States. Zora Neale Hurston originally learned the song from George Thomas in Eatonville, Florida.

Mule on the Mountain

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The railroad lining rhythm, “Shove It Over,” which was generally distributed throughout Florida. Hurston learned the song from Charlie Jones on a railroad construction camp near Lakeland, Florida, in 1933.

Shove It Over

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“Wake Up Jacob,” was sung to wake up the workers in a big work camp. Hurston learned it at a sawmill in Polk County.

Wake Up Jacob

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For more information about Zora Neale Hurston:

Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA in Florida, and the Cross City Turpentine Camp (Educational Unit)

Zora Neale Hurston Podcast

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was the first Floridian to receive the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (later named the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).  She won the award in 1939 for her book The Yearling.

Photograph of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings with typewriter

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953)

In 1928, Rawlings purchased an orange grove in Alachua County near Hawthorne, FL. Located between Lochloosa Lake and Orange Lake, the site was called Cross Creek. The surrounding area served as a setting, provided the characters, and influenced the stories of most of her novels and short stories. Themes of rural Florida, the Big Scrub area, and Florida Cracker culture are prevalent in her works.

Photograph of oaks with moss over water from Cross Creek, FL

Cross Creek, FL

The plots of her novels revolved around her observations in this area: farming, hunting, the interaction with the environment and its inhabitants, moonshining, and poverty. Rawling’s depictions were so direct from her experience, people she met were named in her novels and descriptions were recognized by the locals resulting in threats and at least one law suit for invasion of privacy.

MGM set for the film adaptation of The Yearling, 1940 with Gregory Peck & Jane Wyman

MGM set for the film adaptation of The Yearling, 1940 with Gregory Peck & Jane Wyman

Her works garnered several awards including an O. Henry Award in 1932 (for “Gal Young Un”)  and the Newberry Honor in 1956 (for The Secret River). Several of her works have been adapted for stage and screen. The story rights to The Yearling were purchased by MGM and an Academy Award winning film adaptation was released in 1946, increasing her fame.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home - Cross Creek, Florida

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek, FL

Rawlings’ Cross Creek home, where she once hosted Zora Neale Hurston, is now preserved as the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Happy Birthday Zora Neale Hurston!

Acclaimed author, folklorist, and path-breaking anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was born yesterday in about 1891.

Zora Neale Hurston, ca. 1930

Zora Neale Hurston, ca. 1930

Although most associated with the Harlem Renaissance and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida and worked for the Federal Writers Project (FWP) in Florida, alongside Stetson Kennedy, in the 1930s and 1940s.

Hurston was among the first trained anthropologists to study African American culture in the American South. She incorporated her fieldwork into fiction and non-fiction writings. Hurston died in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1960.

Zora Neale Hurston, with Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, 1935

Zora Neale Hurston, with Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, 1935

Some of Hurston’s most important yet underappreciated contributions to American anthropology consist of work songs she gathered in Florida while working for the FWP. Listen to one of our favorites, collected by Hurston at a railroad construction camp near Lakeland in 1933.

Shove It Over, as performed by Zora Neal Hurston

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Learn more: Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA in Florida, and the Cross City Turpentine Camp (online learning unit)

Women’s Contributions to Documenting Florida Folklife

Since the 1930s, women have had an important role in documenting, preserving and celebrating Florida’s diverse cultural heritage. March is Women’s History Month, and in this podcast we will recognize and give voice to some of these women.

We begin with Eatonville native Zora Neale Hurston, who documented turpentine workers in Cross City, Florida as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Through her essay “Turpentine,” and field recordings, Hurston captured unique, first-hand accounts of day-to-day life in the turpentine camps, and the traditions that were an integral part of the workers’ culture.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen: Eatonville, Florida

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen: Eatonville, Florida

During the same time Zora Neale Hurston was conducting fieldwork in Florida, Sarah Gertrude Knott founded both the National Folk Festival and the National Folk Festival Association in 1934; among the earliest advisors for these endeavors was Ms. Hurston. In 1952, under contract from the Stephen Foster Memorial Commission, Knott organized the first Florida Folk Festival and formed the Florida Folk Festival Association. She also served as director of the first two Florida Folk Festivals in 1953 and 1954.

Succeeding Sarah Gertrude Knott as director of the Florida Folk Festival from 1954-1965 was “Cousin” Thelma Boltin from Gainesville. In addition to sharing her gifts as a storyteller, organizer and emcee, Cousin Thelma—a title earned from her familial rapport with festival participants—scouted the state for folk artists to recruit for the festival. With the help of Barbara Beauchamp, Boltin established the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs as a valuable institution for sharing and celebrating the state’s varied traditions.

The success of the Florida Folk Festival brought the Stephen Foster Memorial Center a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Florida Folklife Program was instituted in 1976. Dr. Peggy Bulger was Florida’s first State Folklorist, founding and administering the Florida Folklife Program from 1976-1989. She created a large body of fieldwork which laid the foundations for the Florida Folklife Collection, and instituted valuable outreach programs such as apprenticeships, educational videos and publications, workshops and exhibits. Dr. Bulger went on to serve as the Senior Program Officer for the Southern Arts Federation, and later as director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.

Folklorist Peggy Bulger, right, conducting field work with quiltmaker Betsy (Mrs. Denard) Webb in White Springs, Florida.

Folklorist Peggy Bulger, right, conducting field work with quiltmaker Betsy (Mrs. Denard) Webb in White Springs, Florida.

With the establishment of the Florida Folklife Program came significant contributions from many other women. Working alongside Peggy Bulger was Brenda McCallum, who was instrumental in documenting and establishing contacts in Florida’s communities. She also played an important role in developing the Florida Folklife Program Archive, and today the American Folklore Society awards a prize in her honor to institutions and individuals working with folklife collections. Tina Bucuvalas served as the State Folklorist from 1996-2009, though her work in the Florida Folklife Program dates back to 1986 with the Miami-Dade Folklife Survey. She currently serves as Curator of Arts and Historical Resources for the City of Tarpon Springs, and recently edited The Florida Folklife Reader.

Folklorist Nancy Nusz interviewing Mr. Ramesch from the Mandeer Restaurant at the 1983 Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida

Folklorist Nancy Nusz interviewing Mr. Ramesch from the Mandeer Restaurant at the 1983 Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida

The list of women who have been integral to the research, documentation and teaching of Florida’s folk traditions continues with Lillian Saunders, Merri Belland, Doris Dyen, Nancy Nusz, Riki Saltzman, Jan Rosenberg, Debbie Fant, Andrea Graham, Laurie Sommers, Mary Anne McDonald, Teresa Hollingsworth, and Betsy Peterson. As part of the Florida Folklife Collection, the recordings in this podcast provide a unique look into to some of the methods, philosophies and motivations behind the work of folklorists.

This podcast features songs, stories, speeches and interviews from Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Gertrude Knott, Thelma Boltin, Peggy Bulger, and Doris Dyen.

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