This edition “Zora Neale Hurston’s WPA field recordings in Jacksonville, FL (1939)” includes three recordings created during the Works Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Writers Project (FWP) on June 18, 1939 that allow us to overhear some of the complexities that played out in the varied contexts of Hurston’s fieldwork. The WPA was a work-relief program created in 1935 by the Roosevelt Administration. The FWP included the Folklore Section. These specific recordings, recorded on June 18, 1939 in the WPA offices in Jacksonville, Florida under the direction of Herbert Halpert with Carita Doggett Corse (FWP Director) and Stetson Kennedy, include Hurston performing songs she had collected during her fieldwork.
Tanya Clement, July 2021
Hurston, Zora Neale. Works Progress Administration Recordings, Jacksonville, FL 1939. Transcribed and edited by Tanya Clement, 2021. WPA field recordings in Jacksonville (1939 recording expedition: Herbert Halpert). 1939-06-18. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. https://tanyaclement.github.io/znh_jacksonville_1939.
Zora Neale Hurston was a collector, speaker, performer, and writer of other people’s stories. For decades, Hurston has been considered an important figure in American literature for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), for her anthropological writings such as Mules and Men (1935), the posthumously published Baracoon (2018), and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). In the 1930s alone, Hurston wrote and was awarded for numerous short stories, journal articles, books and musicals – based on her ethnographic field work in Alabama, the Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, Haiti, Jamaica, and New Orleans. Heralded as a foremother of Black feminist writing and considered an avid proponent for the authentic portrayal and the significance of Black culture in the U.S., Hurston has also been accused of inauthenticity, encouraging racist Black stereotypes, labeled a conservative and a segregationist and portrayed as a sycophant of wealthy white patrons, and a plagiarizer . Further, though trained in highly rigorous anthropological methods by her mentor Franz Boas at Barnard University, Hurston, who did not leave behind the kind of formal, meticulous field notes that were typical for anthropologists at the time, produced writings that have been considered either experimental and impressionistic or fictional rather than scientific (Hemenway 1976, Carby 1990, Harney 2015). As Carla Cappetti succinctly remarks at the recent discovery of two letters in which Hurston displays radically different viewpoints of her sometimes fieldwork collaborator Alan Lomax, “Saying that Hurston is ‘complicated’ is becoming a tight garment’ (603).
Possibly because publishing timestamped annotations is ordinarily prohibitive and with a desire to make Hurston’s recordings more accessible, the Florida Memory project has extracted and made available a playlist called “Dust Tracks” of 21 brief tracks that only include the moments when Hurston sings and talks from these longer recordings. This scholarly edition, in contrast, facilitates finding the points in time where Hurston sings and talks within the context of the longer recording. The edition provides both a transcript and time-stamped annotations to Hurston’s performances as well as to the work songs and stories performed on the same recording by others in the office that day.
These longer recordings provide an opportunity to listen in on the historical context in which Hurston was recorded. This context is amplified in the choice of who was brought to record in the office that day, through the tone and modes of response of the various speakers, and by comparing the stories and songs that Hurston performs with those of the other performers. For instance, we can hear the tone with which Hurston speaks to her white interviewers in what was the Jim Crow South. Corse, Halpert, and Kennedy ranked above Hurston in the WPA office even, as Kennedy has admitted, she was likely more experienced (Kennedy 1989). Further, alongside Hurston’s performances, some of the white interviewees tell racist jokes about ignorant slaves while many of the more bawdy many of the songs (that Hurston herself performs) are misogynistic or present women as objects for pursuit. These recordings also include “Work Songs” sung for her by Black men who worked during 1920s and 1930s in Florida sawmills, in turpentine camps, and by laying down tracks as part of the Florida East Coast Railway. These workers were part of a system formally known as penal servitude and peonage or “debt slavery” in which an employer compelled a worker to pay off a debt with work. Recent scholars in political economy and sociological theory call the work that mostly Black men did in these camps “unfree labor” (Pizzolato 2018). Pizzolato notes that “definitions of unfree labour clarify that, irrespective of the means of recruitment, the payment of wages, or temporality of the situation, the performance of low-paid, dangerous work, the lack of right to protest and penalties for exiting the relation amount to a situation of unfreedom” (476). While Hurston is careful to describe the working conditions in neutral terms to her white interviewers, the lyrics in all three recordings indicate poor working and living conditions including where they slept, what they ate, how physically difficult the work was, how “Boss” treated them, and the fact that they were under constant surveillance. The songs are often bawdy, sardonic, or witty, but this “humor” elides the suffering that is clearly the physical and psychological stress that these men faced in their daily lives.
The following discusses the audible context of each recording.
The first recording (T86-243) begins with singers performing songs that are unidentified in the accompanying Florida Memory metadata. Forty-five minutes into the recording, Hurston sets the stage for her performances by introducing herself (ostensibly for the recording and preservation purposes since her immediate listeners were her colleagues) by lying about her age and her place of birth. There are numerous reasons for why Hurston may have told these untruths but one, in this context, may have been to establish her credibility as a reliable source for these Florida songs. While in actuality, Hurston (48) was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, on the recording she says she is 35 and born in Eatonville, Florida, where many of the songs and stories she had collected for her books originated. This is the same origin story she relays in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).
Over the course of the recording, Hurston describes in detail how the workers’ singing of the songs coordinated with the movements required by their jobs. For a railroad spiking song called “Gonna See My Long-haired Babe”, Hurston explains and then demonstrates this coordination by striking an object in the room with a stick. “The rhythm is kept with a spike and a hammer,” she says. For ‘Let’s Shake It’, a railroad lining chant, Hurston describes how the men work together to line up a 900 pound railroad rail. For the lining and spiking songs ‘Shove it Over’ and ‘That Ole Black Gal’, Hurston identifies her versions’ originators as Charlie Jones from Lakeland and Max Ford from Miami. By identifying the liners by name and explaining that “the railroad has to pay the singing liner or else the men won’t work”, Hurston creates a context around the song in which the men are humanized as acting agents rather than victims of their circumstances.
While the first recording provides some context for the scenarios in which Hurston collected folk stories and song from Black working men in Florida, the second recording, T86-244 provides an opportunity to overhear and compare the differing dynamics at play when white Southern women versus Black Southern women are being recorded. One outstanding difference in this particular recording is reflected in the content the white Southern interviewees, Beatrice Lange and Evelyn Werner choose to share. In Hurston’s publications, there are a wide range of stories told about slaves, but for the most part, the slaves are represented by a predominant slave named John Henry who regularly outwits his master and the devil. Lange and Werner, in contrast, tell stories in which slaves appear ignorant and foolish and are bested by their circumstances or their masters. It is uncertain if Hurston is in the room when these women tell their stories, but when Werner tells her tale in which a Black mother, newly given her freedom, offers her troublesome child back to her Master’s wife, the contrast between the teller of this cruel tale and Hurston is amplified. When Werner finishes her story, Halpert asks Dr. Corse to “please explain why did we ask to have this record made”. Corse promptly responds, “This record was made for the purpose of recording the annunciation of an educated Southern white voice.” Someone in the background, possibly Hurston, clarifies the description by adding “educated white woman”. Another “educated white woman” who speaks is Mrs. Rolla Southworth, State Director of the Professional Service Projects of the WPA in Florida. She is recorded saying in response to Dr. Corse’s introduction of her that “[p]ersonally, my greatest interest is in the Negro Folklore and how justly proud we all are of Zora Hurston whose fine literary ability and wealth of experience has made our recordings possible today.” In juxtaposition with Hurston’s performance of bawdy work songs and her objectification as “the other to be studied”, the appearance of “educated” white women telling tales about ignorant and foolish slaves (who are similarly positioned as “the other”) and Mrs. Southworth’s infantilizing pride of both Hurston and “the Negro Folklore” undermine Hurston’s role as an intellectual, literary genius, and published anthropologist.
The race and gender power dynamics at play in these recordings extend beyond those between women of different races to that between the interviewers (primarily white men) and Hurston. Over the course of this recording, Hurston sings two “jook” songs, “Uncle Bud” and “Tampa”. In the summer of 1929, Hurston explains in a letter to Langston Hughes that “jook” is “the word for baudy[sic] house in its general sense. It is the club house on these saw-mills and terpentine [sic] stills . . . The folks call playing and singing those songs “jooking”. For ex., “Man, he sho kin jook.” (Zora Neale Hurston 143) The first jook song she sings, “Uncle Bud” talks about being aggressive with woman, “shitting turds”, and how low his testicles hang. The second jook song includes the lyrics: “Thought I heard someone says ‘nasty butt, stinky butt, take it away. I do not want it in here. Oh, I’m so glad the law has changed. The women in Tampa got to wipe their ass. Oh I do not want it in here . . . hold up the window, let the stink go out . . . nasty butt, stinky butt, take it away. I do not want it in here.” In response to “Uncle Bud”, Kennedy [^1] asks, “is it sung before the respectable ladies?” And Hurston responds emphatically, “Never! It’s one of those jook songs and the woman that they sing Uncle Bud in front of is a jook woman.” Kennedy instantly questions her, “I thought you heard it from women”. Laughing, Hurston responds, “Yes, I heard it from women.” Again, Hurston becomes the insider “other” and plays the role of both observer and observed, a role which, in this case, brings with it the understanding that she is an “insider” with Black women who, in seeming contrast with the “educated white women” in the room are not considered “the respectable ladies”. Finally, Hurston sings two more songs where Black women like herself are positioned as victims of domestic abuse and social outcasts. In “Po Boy”, she sings “Laid in jail, my back turned to the wall. Coming a time when a woman don’t need no man . . . Mistreat me you mistreated more than this gal” and in “Mama Don’t Want No Peas No Rice”, she sings about a wife and a mother who cannot perform these roles because, as her husband laments, “all she wants is Whiskey Brandy all the time”. In a context where Hurston is singing for white men and women heralded as “educated” about poor, uneducated, immoral Black women, Hurston’s positionality as “authority” becomes complicated by association.
A theme that predominates in the third recording, T86-245, is the slippery nature of “originality” or “origins” in folklore study, especially in the context of recording Black Floridians. Many of the songs sung on this recording have international roots. On this recording, Hurston sings songs that are “sung in Key West and Miami and Palm Beach and out in the Everglades where a great number of Nassaus are working in the bean fields and whatnot”. While Corse marvels at how “interesting” it is “that we have inferences from the West Indies as well as the rural South in our Florida Negro folklore”, Hurston reminds Corse that the songs are sung as a means of “African survival” and thus that their international roots are tied to the slave trade. Other comments remind the listener that folklore is by nature difficult to preserve through recording because folk art is a live art, created dynamically and differently each time a song or story is performed. When Hurston is singing ‘Mule on the Mount’ in the first recording (T86-243), for example, she notes that “the tune is consistent but the verses, you know how things, in every locality you can find some new verses, everywhere.”. When asked where she learned what she will perform for the recording, Hurston responds “I’m going to sing, oh I guess, all the tune is the same. I’m going to sing verses from a whole lots of places”. When Kennedy later asks who taught her the song “Halimuhfack’, she describes its origins as communal in nature: “I don’t remember. I was in a big crowd and I learned it in the evening during the crowd. And I’m just, don’t can’t exactly remember who I, who did teach it to me but I learned it from the crowd most exactly more from one”. That these songs are created and preserved by the community is a theme that is repeated in this last recording when “a Latin group now playing at the Cuban Club in Tampa Florida” (the singers for which are not recognized in the Florida Memory metadata even though they are mentioned by name) begin singing traditional Cuban songs. When Kennedy asks where and how one of the songs has been learned, Art Pages, the group’s pianist answers that “there is no way of tracing it to its author or its originality. It has just been picked from one generation to the other”.
The contexts included in these recordings show that Hurston’s performances are more than simply records of folklore. Rather, these are cultural texts that reflect the social and technical environment in which the recordings happened. In context, these performances, and those of the others recorded alongside her, resist simple notions of gender and race as well as “author”, “text”, “object” of study, and “the document of record” on which protocols for preservation and access in academia, anthropology, and government are based. As Hurston herself has famously said of her own recording process on T86-244:
I just get in the crowd with the people if they’re singing and I listen as best I can and I start to joining in with a phrase or two and then, finally I get so I can sing a verse and then I keep on until I learn all the song, all the verses, and then I sing them back to the people until they tell me I can sing them just like them (“Halimuhfack”).
Asked if this is the same way she collected the songs she published in the journals and the book (Mules and Men) that she had published, Hurston says, “I learned the song myself and I can take it with me wherever I go.” Hurston reminds us that recording folklore is complicated. By including annotations of the original audio recordings, three of which are the focus of this edition allows for a different telling of what serves as a record of Zora Neale Hurston’s contribution to collecting African American story-telling tradition.
[^1] Stetson Kennedy often indicates that his was the voice asking Zora Neale Hurston questions in these recordings even though the Florida Memory metadata does not indicate this fact. Based on the 2002 interview with Kennedy, I have labeled the voice “SK” for Stetson Kennedy throughout this edition.
Harney, Daniel. “Scholarship and the Modernist Public: Zora Neale Hurston and the Limitations of Art and Disciplinary Anthropology.” Modernism/Modernity, vol. 22, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015, pp. 471–92.
Hemenway, Robert. “Folklore Field Notes From Zora Neale Hurston.” The Black Scholar, vol. 7, no. 7, 1976, pp. 39–46.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” First edition., Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.
—. Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States. 1st ed., HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
—. Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings. 1st ed., W W. Norton, 1999.
—. “Halimuhfack.” Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942, The Library of Congress (1939).
—. Mules and Men. JBLippincott Co, 1935.
—. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 75th Anniversary edition, Amistad, 2006.
—. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan, 1st ed., Doubleday, 2002.
Pizzolato, Nicola. “Harvests of Shame: Enduring Unfree Labour in the Twentieth-Century United States, 1933–1964.” Labor History, vol. 59, no. 4, Routledge, July 2018, pp. 472–90. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://doi.org/10.1080/0023656X.2018.1467259.