Hearing a Culture Change in Florida

August 18, 2009
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Seventy years ago this month, Zora Neale Hurston began a landmark field recording tour, traveling down through Florida’s hot coastal towns and turpentine camps, gathering songs that people sang to each other: hard songs and mythic stories, with all the power and struggle of life.

Hurston had mapped out the Florida tour in her head, with stops chosen to get Spanish-influenced songs, African-flavored songs, and tunes harking back to Old English. Then she wrote up her plan in a memo and sent it to Washington.

As her younger white colleague Stetson Kennedy remembered, Hurston called folklore the “boiled down pot liquor of human living,” and prized it dearly. She knew the world was changing and that cultures would continue to collide and make new things in those collisions, but she aimed to capture the essence of what had come down to her.

Her plan finally got support with the loan of a state-of-the-art recording machine – a massive beast that required two men to carry – from the Library of Congress.

Just weeks before the end of her time on the WPA, the recording tour she proposed came about and the converted ambulance hauling the recording machine rolled into Jacksonville. She began at a soup kitchen there, recording gospel songs across town from the state office of the WPA Writers’ Project where the white WPA writers worked. Because of Jim Crow segregation, the half dozen African-Americans on the Florida staff worked from another office near the soup kitchen. Hurston herself worked mostly from her hometown of Eatonville.

Songs that she and her WPA coworkers recorded that summer (and again that winter) would roil through American popular culture for decades. “The Sloop John B,” for example: the WPA recordings capture Bahamian and Dixieland versions of the song, which dates back to 1900. It would later have incarnations in folk music, then rock and roll, ending up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. “Ninety-nine and Half Won’t Do,” a gospel song, would get a soul version from Wilson Pickett.

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