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

Download: MP3

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


Download: MP3

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

Download: MP3

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

Let’s Shake It

Download: MP3

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

Download: MP3

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

Download: MP3

“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

Download: MP3

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