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Collection Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942

About this Collection

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections combines sound recordings and manuscript materials from four discrete archival collections made by Work Projects Administration (WPA) workers from the Joint Committee on Folk Arts, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Federal Music Project from 1937-42. This online presentation provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcripts, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and a proposal to survey Florida folklore by Zora Neale Hurston. An essay by Stetson Kennedy, who worked with Hurston and other WPA collectors, reflects on the labor and the legacy of the WPA in Florida; and an extensive bibliography and list of related Web sites add further context about the New Deal era and Florida culture.

The recording equipment was loaned by the Archive of American Folk Song (American Folklife Center Archive) at the Library of Congress. Recordists included Robert Harrison Cook, Herbert Halpert, Zora Neale Hurston, Stetson Kennedy, Alton Morris, and others. The resulting recordings documented folktales, life histories, beliefs, and sacred and secular music of African American, Anglo-American, Arabic, Bahamian, Cuban, Greek, Italian, Minorcan, Seminole, Slovak, and Syrian cultures and communities throughout Florida. It features sound recordings in many languages, includes blues and work songs from menhaden fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children's songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures.

The sound quality of these recordings is, at times, extremely poor. The fragile blank acetate disks had to be shipped to the Federal Writers' Project office in Jacksonville, then transported to recording sites throughout the state to be filled with songs and stories before being shipped back to the Library of Congress. It is therefore not surprising that they contain a high level of scratchy surface noise. There are also flaws due to speed changes: the audio was typically recorded at 78 rpm, but some announcements were slowed down to 33 1/3 rpm to save space on the disks. Damaged needles may account for some scratchiness and skipping, and badly placed microphones would make the voices sound muffled and/or distant. Some of the Florida folklife sound recordings have not been included in this online presentation because the damage was too great. Many others have been included despite their flaws, because a melody or tale is still audible. A small subset of the sound recordings in this collection (44 items) are not included in this online presentation due to considerations of sound quality or other concerns. See a list of the items in the American Folklife Center's holdings but not provided here online.