Zora Neale Hurston and the WPA in Florida

Documents and Audio

Sound Recordings by Zora Neale Hurston

In 1939, Zora Neale Hurston arranged a recording session at the Clara White Mission in Jacksonville featuring a variety of everyday African-Americans telling stories and singing or chanting traditional music for preservation. She also sang 18 songs herself, mostly work songs and folk songs. Herbert Halpert can also be heard on the recordings. The original recordings are housed at the Library of Congress. This selection focuses on songs that Hurston learned in Florida.

1. Dat Old Black Gal (Download)

"Dat Old Black Gal" is a railroad spiking song that Hurston learned near Miami from Max Ford, the singing liner on the construction crew. It was used for spiking down the rails.

2. Halimuhfack (Download)

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

3. Let the Deal Go Down (Download)

Hurston sings 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.

4. Let's Shake It (Download)

This is a track-lining chant that Hurston learned at a railroad camp in Callahan, Florida. "A rail weighs 900 pounds and the men have to take these lining bars and get it in shape to spike it down and while they're doing that they have a chant and also some songs that they use the rhythm to work it into place. And then the boss hollers 'bring me my hammer gang' and they start to spike it down."

5. Mule on the Mount (Download)

The track-lining rhythm, "Mule on the Mount," is the most widely-distributed work song in the United States. It has "innumerable verses about anything under the sun." It was also sung in juke houses and "for doing any kind of work at all." Zora Neale Hurston originally learned the song from George Thomas in Eatonville, Florida.

6. Shove It Over (Download)

This is a railroad lining rhythm, which was generally distributed throughout Florida. Hurston learned the song from Charlie Jones on a railroad construction camp near Lakeland, Florida, in 1933.

7. Wake Up Jacob (Download)

This song was sung to wake up the workers in a big work camp. Hurston learned it at a sawmill in Polk County.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) – after 1939, the Works Projects Administration – was a work-relief program created in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt's Administration. It had employed over 8.5 million people by its demise in 1943. One of its programs was the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), which included a folklore section. This section conducted fieldwork, recording songs, traditions, and stories across the nation. Originally created to gather material for the American Guide Series, later emphasis was placed upon fieldwork for the preservation of folk traditions for future generations.

In Florida, the FWP was based out of Jacksonville, and directed by historian Carita Doggett Corse. Folklorist Stetson Kennedy directed the Florida Folklife section. Seven fieldwork recording expeditions were conducted in Florida. Two were conducted between 1935 and 1937, before the creation of the Florida Folklore section: one by Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston, and the other by John and Ruby Lomax. After 1939, five more were conducted by Florida's FWP staff: Kennedy, Hurston, Corse, Robert Cook, Alton Morris, Robert Cornwell, John Filareton, and Herbert Halpert of the Joint Committee on Folk Art's Southern Recording Expedition.

Recording equipment was loaned to Florida's WPA program by the Library of Congress' Archive of the American Folk Song (later the American Folklife Center). The field recordings were made on acetate disks and usually recorded at 78 rpm (although occasionally at 33 rpm). Because these disks were shipped from Washington, DC to Florida, then to the recording site, and then back to Washington, they often were not of the highest sonic quality. Several had surface scratches and many had various recording speeds. In 1986, the Florida Folklife Program staff made copies of many of these recordings onto reel to reels for inclusion in the Florida Folklife Archive housed at the State Archives of Florida (Series 1576).