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
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.
Tarpon Springs, a small town in Southwest Florida with the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the U.S., was recently named Florida’s first Traditional Cultural Property as recognized by the National Park Service. Greek immigrants began arriving at Tarpon Springs in the 1880s. They worked in the booming sponge diving industry, bringing with them rich cultural traditions that shaped their community into one of the most unique cities in Florida.
One thriving cultural tradition in Tarpon Springs is rebetiko music. Rebetiko (plural rebetika), a catch-all term for Greek folk music, became popular during the folk revival in the 1960s and 70s. Many Greek musicians living in Tarpon Springs playing a diverse range of instruments, including the tsabouna and bouzouki, went on to have illustrious careers playing rebetiko.
Nikitas Tsimouris, a notable Greek American tsabouna performer, came from a family of sponge divers and learned songs from around the world on his sailing expeditions. Tsimouris participated in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, passing down the tsabouna tradition to his grand-nephew, Nikitas Kavouklis. In 1991, Tsimouris received the National Heritage Fellowship in recognition of his ability to build and play the instrument.
The tsabouna originates from the Dodecanese islands, and is a bagpipe-like instrument made out of goatskin. Some believe the instrument was created by herdsman as a way to pass the time. It has two chanters, pipes with finger holes in them, so two lines of melody can be played at the same time and harmonize with each other, creating an interesting accompaniment for a singer. Typically, a chanter is passed down from father to son, and Tsimouris’ chanter was made out of olive wood and bamboo reeds by his father.
Nikitas Tsimouris playing the tsabouna, a Greek Bagpipe
Another popular instrument used in rebetiko is the bouzouki. The bouzouki is a 3 or 4-stringed instrument that originated in Asia Minor and was brought to Greece in the early 1900s. It is a pear-shaped instrument, usually inlaid with designs made from mother-of-pearl.
Spiros Skordilis was an accomplished composer and performer of the bouzouki. He recorded many hit songs while living in America, including Your Mini Dress, which was banned by Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos in 1967 as part of his widespread ban on mini skirts. Skordilis was also a dedicated teacher, participating in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and teaching bouzouki at Tarpon Springs Elementary School.
To hear more rebetika from Tarpon Springs, check out the additional tracks below, or listen to the podcast “Greek Music Traditions in Tarpon Springs.”
Cretan wedding music – Kostas Maris and Nick Mastras
I Yerakina – Grecian Islanders of Tarpon Springs
Greek Music Traditions in Tarpon Springs
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:
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
The latest podcast from the State Archives of Florida highlights the life and music of blues pianist Alexander McBride.
Born in Jacksonville in 1913, McBride grew up in a household where gospel music was always in the air. His mother owned a piano, which she used strictly for spiritual music. Interestingly, McBride learned to play the piano from his mother, though she didn’t teach him herself. As a young boy, he recalled watching his mother practice. When she left, he would rush to the piano, replicating his mother’s technique. Once she heard her son’s talent, she began training and encouraging him to play at their local church.
Unbeknownst to his family, McBride became fond of blues music, which was banned in their home and church. That didn’t stop McBride. He would sneak out of the house and visit local juke joints to experience blues music, and before long, as a young teenager, he was playing local clubs and house parties. As an adult, he traveled around the Southeast, as well as to Chicago, playing primarily African American venues. In time, he earned the stage name “Piano Slim.”
Like fellow Florida native, and piano player, Ray Charles, McBride’s playing embodied both sacred and secular music. Both artists incorporated aspects of gospel into their blues, jazz, and R&B music to give their songs more profound emotional power. In the recordings selected for this podcast, McBride performs a moving rendition of Georgia on My Mind, made famous by Ray Charles. You will also hear McBride’s range of musical talent in Jazz Boogie, as he incorporates jazz and boogie-woogie into his repertoire.
McBride died in 1999, but he lived to see recognition for his contributions to Florida folk music. In 1997, he was presented the Florida Folk Heritage Award. McBride had a proactive desire to share his knowledge and talent by teaching and inspiring others. He participated in the Duval County Folklife in Education Program for 10 years by playing the piano for children in Duval County Public Schools.
Alexander McBride Podcast
For More Information:
Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources: 1997 Florida Folk Heritage Award
The State Archives’ Florida Folklife Collection is among the projects featured in a new sustainability study focusing on digitization. The study, conducted by Nancy Moran of Ithaka S+R, in partnership with the Association of Research Libraries, details the history of the Folklife Collection and the ongoing efforts by the State Archives to make materials from the collection accessible via the Florida Memory website.
The Florida Folklife Collection is one of the largest and most diverse collections held by the State Archives of Florida. Approximately 5,000 sound recordings and 46,000 photographs from the collection have been cataloged. Of these, over 2,000 sound recordings and nearly 14,000 photographs are available on the Florida Memory website. The Folklife Collection provides a remarkable window into the traditional cultures of Florida’s native and immigrant populations. Materials in the collection, gathered by folklorists working for the Florida Bureau of Folklife Programs, speak to, among other things, religion, food, music, art, immigration, story telling, and labor in Florida history.
Boat Captain Skipper Lockett Welcomes You to Rainbow Springs
Download “Searching for Sustainability: Strategies from Eight Digitized Special Collections,” which places the Folklife Collection in the context of other national projects, and the case study, which focuses solely on the history and ongoing efforts to sustain digitization of the Florida Folklife Collection.
Our latest podcast features music and tall tales from Florida fiddler and story teller Richard Seaman (1904-2002).
Seaman was born on an orange grove in Kissimmee, Florida. While attending community gatherings as a young boy, he listened to local fiddlers as people square danced into the night. These experiences motivated him to pick up the fiddle and learn the craft. This environment was also conducive to the telling of “tall tales,” which Seaman later recounted and delivered to captivated audiences with an intuitive flair.
Over the years, Seaman developed a repertoire of fiddle tunes that included waltzes and western swing, but the “old time” hoedown tunes he learned as a young man exemplify his contribution to the regional heritage of Florida fiddle playing. Folklorist Gregory Hansen notes that Seaman’s fiddle tunes have influenced fiddlers from Florida and beyond, and even the genre of bluegrass music that this “old time” style of playing precedes.
In his early years of fiddle playing, Seaman moved to Jacksonville, where he performed in several bands, including the Melody Makers and the string band South Land Trail Riders. He and the Melody Makers also had a weekly radio program on WJAX. In 1955, Seaman put his fiddle down and didn’t pick it up again for more than 30 years until he met banjoist/guitarist Jack Piccalo. The two began to play together at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, and continued to do so regularly until Seaman’s death in 2002.
Fiddle tunes were not Seaman’s only contribution to the Florida Folk Festival. He also recited “tall tales” to eager audiences on the Story Telling Stage. What made Seaman’s stories engaging was his ability to weave reality and fantasy together, always framing the narrative with a plausible scenario, and resolving it with “a whopper.” As Hansen points out, there is truth in Seaman’s fictitious tales as he conveys, “the daily activities that form important components of his life experience,” and in a greater sense, shared his vision of folklife in Florida.
In 2001, Seaman was recognized for his longstanding contribution to the folk culture of Florida when he received the Florida Folk Heritage Award at 96 years old.
This podcast highlights two performances by Seaman from the Florida Folk Festival. The first features Seaman’s fiddle playing, partnered with Jack Piccalo’s guitar, from the 1993 festival. In the second performance, we will hear an excerpt from Seaman’s “tall tales” told from the Story Telling Stage at the 1992 festival.
Richard Seaman Podcast
For more information, see: Catalog Record for Fiddle Performance; Catalog Record for Story Telling Performance; Gregory Hansen, A Florida Fiddler: The Life and Times of Richard Seaman (University of Alabama Press, 2007); Gregory Hansen, “Richard Seaman’s Presence within Florida’s Soundscape,” in The Florida Folklife Reader, edited by Tina Bucuvalas (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
The State Library and Archives of Florida provides access to a multitude of published and unpublished resources for the study of Native American history and culture. In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, this series highlights materials in the collection that speak to the past and ongoing influence of Native peoples in Florida history.
One of the unique resources held by the State Archives is the Florida Folklife Collection. State folklorists and the Seminole Tribe of Florida collaborated on several initiatives that produced a wealth of documentation on modern Seminole culture.
For example, the Seminole Slide and Tape Project, conducted in the early 1980s, resulted in a number of interviews and photographs documenting traditional arts and crafts. Other projects, such as the Seminole Video Project, yielded additional ethnographic materials used to educate Floridians about Seminole history and culture.
Some of the interviews gathered during the slide and tape project, facilitated by Seminole interpreters, feature informants speaking Muskogee (Creek) or Hitchiti (Mikasuki), indigenous languages spoken by members of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes in Florida.
In addition to formal interviews, the Florida Folklife Collection also contains sound recordings of Seminole musicians and storytellers who appeared at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Prominent Seminole leaders, such as James Billie and Betty Mae Jumper, regularly participated in the festival.
“Back to the Swamp,” by James Billie
Stay tuned for more posts on Native Americans in Florida history, featuring original and published materials held by the State Library and Archives of Florida.