Jean Ritchie, Appalachian balladeer and folklorist, sang with a high lonesome sound that ranged from dulcet to doleful—a sound ornamented with trills and quivers in the “good old way” of her Kentucky forebears. Ms. Ritchie died Monday at the age of 92. Read more
Florida’s pioneer settlers faced a number of hardships when they first arrived, but that didn’t stop them from having a little fun every now and then. Rural families often lived a few miles apart from one another, but they would come together when one of them had a major project that needed to be done. Fodder pulling, which involved pulling the leaves off corn stalks for use as food for the stock animals, was one such task. Others included splitting rails and rolling logs to a home site for a new cabin. No matter what the day’s work entailed, once everyone was finished the families often enjoyed a good hearty meal and a little music and dancing. In North Florida, these informal parties were known as “frolics.”
Frolics were simple, of course, but imagine how much fun they must have been for young folks living so far apart from one another! Dancing was frowned upon if not entirely forbidden by a number of the prominent churches in pioneer Florida, but it happened nonetheless. Perhaps as a compromise, much of the dancing resembled what we would call square dancing, where the participants followed a prescribed set of moves rather than pairing off and dancing however they pleased. One favorite was the cotillion, which involved eight persons, four of each sex. Someone would call the steps as the musicians played, and the dancers would react accordingly. W.T. Cash, Florida first State Librarian and an early resident of Taylor County, remembered some of these steps in the cotillion:
“Honor your partner! Lady on the left! Balance all! All promenade!”
And when it was time for the dance to end:
“Right hands to your partners, gents to the center, and ladies to your seats!”
The fiddle and harmonica were the main instruments used in making the music, and the musicians were usually just folks in the neighborhood who had picked up their craft from a relative or friend. The instruments, Cash reported, rarely cost more than about $10.
When they weren’t playing the more upbeat dancing tunes, the musicians drew from a wealth of folk songs that most of the party-goers would have known by heart. Songs like “Arkansas Traveler,” “Hell after the Yearling,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Cindy,” and “Turkey in the Straw” were popular numbers in North Florida.
The Florida Folklife Collection holds many recordings of these traditional songs being played by celebrated folk artists. Click on the Play button below to hear “Turkey in the Straw,” played by Telleta Arwell and Mary Ann Bows at the 1987 Florida Folk Festival. The lyrics follow.
Note: This is one of those songs with a hundred different variations; we’ve just chosen a few of our favorite verses.
Turkey in the straw, hee haw haw!
Turkey in the hay, hey hey hey!
Roll ’em up and twist ’em up a high tuck a-haw,
And hit ’em up a tune called Turkey in the Straw!
As I was a-goin’ on down the road,
With a tired team and a heavy load,
I cracked my whip and the leader sprung,
I said Hey! Hey! to the wagon tongue.
I came to the river and I couldn’t get across,
So I paid five dollars for a big bay hoss,
Well he wouldn’t go ahead, and he wouldn’t stand still,
So he went up and down like an old saw mill!
Well I met this catfish comin’ down the stream,
I said, ‘Mr. Catfish, what do you mean?’
Caught Mr. Catfish by the snout,
Turned Mr. Catfish wrong side out!
With so much distance in between families, folks had to get every bit of enjoyment they could out of these gatherings. They often lasted far into the night. One musician, remembering these days, commented that after a night of playing the harmonica at a frolic his mouth hurt so bad he couldn’t laugh for a week!
If this kind of folk music gets you tapping your feet, we recommend you check out our Audio section for more recordings from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as Florida Memory Radio, our 24-hour Internet radio station.
Also, if you don’t have a copy of our bluegrass and old-time music CD, “Look A-Yonder Comin’,” contact us and we’ll send you a complimentary copy.
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.
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
Next is a juke song that Hurston learned on the East coast of Florida. She sings “Halimuhfack,” then describes her process for learning songs.
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
“Let’s Shake It,” is a track-lining chant that Hurston learned at a railroad camp in Callahan, Florida.
Let’s Shake It
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
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
“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
For more information about Zora Neale Hurston:
Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA in Florida, and the Cross City Turpentine Camp (Educational Unit)
Today, we are highlighting one of the State Archives’ exciting endeavors: audio digitization.
Since 2003 the State Archives has digitized thousands of audio recordings in the Florida Folklife Collection. The goal of this effort is to preserve Florida’s folk culture and make it accessible to educators, researchers, and Florida folk enthusiasts around the world. The Collection includes interviews, field recordings and performances gathered by folklorists from the Florida Folklife Program and recordings from the Florida Folk Festival dating back to 1954.
Audio recording formats in the Folklife Collection consist of reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes, digital audio tapes (DATS), compact discs (CDs), and digital audio files. They are kept in a temperature and humidity controlled environment in the Archives’ stacks to minimize deterioration.
To bring you these recordings, the original source materials must be transferred from their analog medium to a digital file. This process requires legacy audio equipment, like reel-to-reel tape machines and cassette decks, to play the audio recordings, and new digital technology, such as analog-to-digital converters, high quality sound cards, and audio computer software to capture the sound digitally.
The resulting digital audio file is an uncompressed 96 khz 24 bit WAV file. This file specification is a national archival standard, chosen for its ability to capture all frequencies in the human hearing range.
These high quality files are called “preservation masters” and are stored without undergoing any editing whatsoever. The idea is to preserve all sonic qualities (good and bad) of the original recording. Some recordings undergo minor editing for listenability when making access copies (e.g. CDs) for users, and mp3 versions for the Florida Memory website and Florida Memory Radio.
For more information about digitization at the State Archives of Florida, check out our Digitization Guidelines.
Washboard Bill was born in Dupont, Florida on July 4, 1905. He was known as a percussionist, rooted in the minstrel tradition, as well as a captivating storyteller. During much of Cooke’s childhood, his mother operated a juke joint in Dupont. The young Cooke would secretly stay up past his bedtime listening to the music emanating from his mother’s establishment. These experiences shaped Cooke’s interest in music, and greatly influenced his rhythmic style later on in life.
At age six, Cooke began working for a local sawmill, making 25 cents per day, after his mother fell on hard financial times. In 1916, Mrs. Cooke closed her juke joint, and sent her children to live on their grandfather’s farm in Sanford, Florida. As times grew tougher and the Great Depression set in, Cooke grew weary of his life on the farm, and decided to leave home. For ten years, he led the life of a hobo, traveling by train all over the East Coast.
Although Cooke spent the majority of his younger years traveling outside of Florida, he still maintained a connection with the state, generally spending his winters in West Palm Beach. Between 1947 and 1963, he performed with a group called the West Palm Beach Washboard Band. They played in venues everywhere from the streets to the estates of the Rockefellers and Kennedys. In 1956, he recorded Washboard Country Band with Sonny Terry and folk legend Pete Seeger. Cooke moved to West Palm Beach permanently in 1973. He performed in Florida and throughout the country until his death in 2003. For his musical and historical contributions, Cooke received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1992.
In 1988, Cooke recited a personal narrative, A Hobo’s Birthday, for the Palm Beach County Folk Arts in Education Project, conducted by the Florida Folklife Program. Cooke’s story offers a fascinating account of life as a hobo during the Great Depression. His travels and experiences give the listener a vivid portrayal of transient life on the railroad tracks, and of the character Washboard Bill.
Podcast: A Hobo’s Birthday by William “Washboard Bill” Cooke
For more information, please see:
Florida Memory is excited to announce the launch of Florida Memory Radio, a 24-hour streaming Internet radio station playing selections from the Florida Folklife Collection. Listeners in Florida and around the world will now be able to enjoy the unique sounds of the Sunshine State anytime from their computers, tablets, or smartphones, either on the web at radio.floridamemory.com, or through the State Archives’ Facebook page.
Florida Memory Radio plays selections of music from several genres, including folk, blues, bluegrass, gospel, and music from around the world played in Florida. The programming schedule, seen below, can also be found at radio.floridamermory.com.
The music played on Florida Memory Radio comes from several sources. Much of it has been collected during field recording sessions, in which folklorists from the Florida Folklife Program have traveled all over the state to preserve its diverse musical traditions. The Folklife Program’s mission is to document and present the folklife, folklore, and folk arts of the state. The majority of the selections acquired by this program were recorded at the Florida Folk Festival, held annually at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs.
Some of the oldest material on Florida Memory Radio comes from recordings made during the Great Depression by folklorists from the Works Progress Administration. As part of Florida’s contribution to the Federal Writers’ Project of that era, field researchers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy hauled bulky equipment to various points around the state and recorded the life histories, stories, and songs of everyone from turpentine workers to Seminole Indians to convict work crews.
And we’re just getting started. The Florida Memory team is exploring a variety of ways to expand and improve the content of this radio station for the enjoyment of everyone. We hope you’ll listen and let us know what you think.
Use our contact form to send us feedback about Florida Memory Radio, and let us know what other content you’d like to see added to the station’s programming schedule!
Although she hailed from Caldwell County, North Carolina, we’d like to remember Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker, born March 31, 1913. She was first recorded in 1956 by folk singer Paul Clayton. These recordings of her gently plucked finger style influenced many artists, including Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal, but Etta never released an album of her own until her 1991 One Dime Blues.
Upon retiring from the textile mill where she worked most of her life, Etta Baker began touring extensively, including a stop at the 1994 Florida Folk Festival. Please enjoy this recording of the first song Etta learned at the age of 3, “Railroad Bill,” captured at the Old Marble Stage.
Before her death at the age of 93, Etta Baker received prestigious recognitions for her talent, including the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, and recorded two more albums—one of which was a collaborative effort with Taj Mahal.
Tom Gaskins (1909 – 1998) spent most of his life trudging through the swamps of Fisheating Creek near Palmdale, Florida. He was a man of ideas and regarded as a salt-of-the-earth character. Gaskins owned the Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale where he collected and sold cypress knees as decorations, furniture, and other useful items. His knowledge of cypress knees and swamp life was legendary. His friends referred to him as “Ol’ Barefoot,” as he never wore shoes except when paying his respects at a funeral.
The Cypress Knee Museum opened in the 1930s when Gaskins fashioned an extra-large cypress knee into a roadside sign to lure tourists to his collection. The museum remained open until 2000 (2 years after Gaskins’ death) when the property was burglarized and most of the collection stolen.
Gaskins was also an inventor. He held over a dozen patents, including the Tom Gaskin’s Turkey Call that is still manufactured and sold today.
The State Archives of Florida is not the only organization that has taken an interest in Mr. Gaskins. Over the years he was featured in stories by the LA Times, Sun Sentinel, Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, Chicago Tribune, and was even a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Gaskins received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1988. His fascinating work and personality piqued the interest of those lucky enough to cross his path; just like travelers going down US 27 in South Florida who stopped by to see “Ol’ Barefoot.”
In 1987, Tom Gaskins was interviewed by the Florida Folklife Program. Below are two excerpts:
Excerpt 1: Tom Gaskins explains the origins of hollow cypress knees
Excerpt 2: Tom Gaskins talks about the turkey call he invented
More Information: Catalog Record
Pete Seeger, folk music legend and activist, died January 27, 2014, at the age of 94.
Born in New York City, Seeger learned the banjo in 1938, and worked with Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress. As a songwriter, his original repertoire included “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He also formed two influential groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, who sang labor anthems like “Which Side are You On?” as well as traditional numbers such as “Goodnight, Irene.”
During his extensive career, Seeger inevitably crossed paths with Florida folk artists. In 1956, he recorded for Folkways Records with the Washboard Band, which featured Florida Folk Heritage Award Winner William “Washboard Bill” Cooke. Not surprisingly, he also struck up a friendship with the Father of Florida Folk himself, Will McLean. The two performed together in 1963 at Carnegie Hall, and Will McLean was notably present for Seeger’s 1977 White Springs appearance.
At the State Archives, one of our favorite genres of music can be best described as Florida Cheese, the sometimes catchy, sometimes grating, always brain infesting jingles used to promote the state over the years.
This song, titled “Florida Belongs to You,” was created by the Florida Development Commission during the Askew administration (1971-1979) and captures the essence of Florida Cheese.
Florida Belongs to You
Take a ride, see the sights
Have your fun, in the sun
See the old, see the new
For Florida belongs to you
Plan a trip and do it soon
Here today, tomorrow the moon
Take the kids, have a ball
For Florida’s the greatest of them all
From the Gulf, to the Atlantic, and the Keys just beyond
It’s beautiful and so gigantic and you can dream you’re Ponce de Leon
Tell the world, sing it loud
It’s your state, say you’re proud
More to see, lots to do
For Florida belongs to you”