Preserving Songs and Culture: Zora Neale Hurston and the Federal Writers’ Project

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-15 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Zora Hurston beating a drum, 1937

[Zora Hurston, half-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, beating the hountar, or mama drum], 1937

By the time Zora Neale Hurston went to work for the Florida Writers’ Project in 1939, she had already written her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), numerous short stories, and nine plays. (All nine plays, including one musical, are available online from the Library of Congress.) The Library’s “Sources and Strategies” article in the May/June 2015 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, discusses Hurston’s work during her time with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in Florida.

In 1939, Hurston sent a proposal to Carita Doggett Corse, the Florida state director of the FWP, making the case to continue her work in Florida:

“No other state in the union has had the history of races blended and contending. Nowhere else is there such a variety of materials. Florida is still a frontier with its varying elements still unassimilated. There is still an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life. Recordings in Florida will be like backtracking a large part of the United States, Europe and Africa for these elements have been attracted here and brought a gift to Florida culture each in its own way.”

Once the proposal was accepted, Hurston worked with the folklorist Stetson Kennedy and others to preserve the culturally rich life of Florida she described, including songs. Hurston sang for many of the recordings, which often included background information about the source and history of the song.

Begin by listening to the song “Halimufak,” supporting analysis with the Primary Source Analysis Tool and the Analyzing Sound Recordings Teacher’s Guide. Play the song. Ask students to share observations and reflections before listening to Hurston’s commentary.

Ask:

  • What can be learned about a culture or region from a song recording?
  • Why might the WPA (Works Projects Administration), which approved collecting items like this for the American Guides project of the FWP, have thought preserving songs and other elements of culture around the country was valuable?

Listen next to this recording of the folk song “John Henry.” Consider sharing background information about the song, available from the Library of Congress.

Ask:

  • Why is listening to music an effective way of studying a culture or region?
  • What songs do you believe should be preserved for their significance to American culture?

Examine other songs that Hurston sang or recorded to continue the conversation about her work and the work of the FWP.

Let us know in the comments if you try this or any of the strategies from the article with your students.

One Comment

  1. Sandra Brownlee
    July 11, 2015 at 8:36 am

    This blog is great!

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