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[Detail] Fishermen. Key West, Florida

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Zora Neale Hurston's Impact on the Florida Folklife Project

Zora Neale Hurston, a noted folklorist and published novelist, was a key figure in the Florida project. An experienced Federal Writers' Project interviewer, in May 1939, Hurston prepared a proposal for a "recording expedition into the Floridas." Read the proposal and answer the following questions:

  • In the first sentence of the essay, Hurston says that "Florida stands out from the other forty-eight states culturally as it does geographically." What evidence does she provide to support that statement?
  • How does Hurston use the excerpts from song lyrics? How effective do you think this technique is in persuading readers of the importance of the recording expedition?
  • In your view, what is the strongest argument Hurston makes in support of the recording expedition? Why did you select this argument?
  • If you had been in charge of allocating resources in the Federal Writers' Project, would you have approved the "recording expedition into the Floridas" after reading Hurston's proposal? Why or why not?

When the project began, Hurston was an important liaison opening doors to African American communities throughout Florida. She made the initial contact with individuals and encouraged them to share old folk songs and stories, including tall tales, with FWP fieldworkers. In many instances, Hurston recorded brief explanations of particular songs and then sang for the recordings. Listen to the recordings of "Uncle Bud," a social song sung by men all over the South; "Wake Up, Jacob," a holler song sung by the shack-rouster (the man hired to wake up the workers in a work camp); and "Mama Don't Want No Peas, No Rice," a song from Nassau, the Bahamas, sung at jumping dances and fire dances.

In the recording of "Halimuhfack," a "jook" or bar room song from the east coast of Florida, Hurston describes how she collected and learned folk songs.

  • How did Zora Neale Hurston learn the folk songs she recorded?
  • What steps did she take to insure that her performance of a folksong was accurate?
  • Summarize the impact of Zora Neale Hurston on the effort to document folklife in Florida.