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No Depression Features Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston collects songs from Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida, 1935. Photo by Alan Lomax. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find the Archival Scan Here.

We’re happy to announce a new venture in getting our stories out there! We’re working with No Depression, The Journal of Roots Music, which is published by the nonprofit Freshgrass Foundation.  They’ll be publishing a column called Roots in the Archive, featuring content from the American Folklife Center and Folklife Today, over at their website.

The first Roots in the Archive column is about Zora Neale Hurston’s recordings on loc.gov. Find it here at this link. Or if you need convincing, here’s an excerpt:

A woman beats a drum with a slender mallet.

Zora Neale Hurston beating a Haitian Maman drum in 1937. Photo by an unidentified staff photographer of the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find the archival scan here.

Hurston had successfully collected in the South with Alan Lomax several years before, but the local arrangements for this 1939 trip were made by white Floridians of the time, to whom it was unthinkable that a white man and a black woman could travel together, or that a black woman should be trusted with recording equipment. Instead, the plan they developed was that Hurston would go on ahead and scout for talent, and [Herbert] Halpert and [Stetson] Kennedy would follow behind her a few days later and record the people she recommended. Needless to say, many gifted African American singers and storytellers performed beautifully for the talented and charming Hurston, then were mysteriously difficult to find when suspicious-sounding white men from the government showed up days later with a recording machine. As a result, only a few of the recordings recommended by Hurston were actually captured.

The silver lining to that cloud is that Halpert decided to record Hurston’s own renditions of whatever songs and stories she cared to perform. The result is this unique set of recordings. Hurston sings songs she collected from black Floridians, Gullah Geechee folks from South Carolina, and Bahamians in both Nassau and Florida. They include songs from the Bahamas associated with a ritual fire dance, which include Hurston performing drumming and clapping rhythms, as well as spirituals, work songs, and a description of “lining track,” the method by which work crews kept railroad tracks in alignment to prevent derailments. Hurston had already used some of this material in [her musical] The Great Day, and we can assume these were her personal favorites among the many songs she had collected.

Zora Neale Hurston, of course, was one of the most talented, intelligent, and colorful American writers of the 20th century. She was also an accomplished folklorist, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has a number of collections associated with her work, including these songs that she sang herself for Herbert Halpert and other collectors.

The column describes more of the context of Hurston’s songs, and includes a brief discussion of a few specific songs and a comical moment during the recording session captured on one of the discs. Find the column over at No Depression, at this link!