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Guitarist in Eatonville, Florida

1930s Florida Folklife {format} 22:20 Barrett Golding

The music and culture of African-American Florida.

Broadcast: Feb 1 2002 on NPR All Things Considered Subjects: Music, Business, Cultural, Labor

The Sounds of 1930s Florida Folklife

February 28, 2002 from All Things Considered

JACKI LYDEN, host: From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

NOAH ADAMS, host: And I'm Noah Adams.

For five years, from 1937 to 1942, a group of young people traveled the length and width of the Florida peninsula. With them, they brought a recording machine the size of a coffee table--the moving parts looked like a phonograph--and cut recordings with a sapphire needle directly onto a 12-inch acetate disk. They were hired by the Library of Congress to document the diverse cultures of Florida. The project was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by President Franklin Roosevelt.

LYDEN: They went into turpentine camps, citrus groves, sawmills and aboard fishing boats, and they interview hundreds of people, mostly minorities and mostly poor. They recorded music--spirituals, children's songs, work songs--and they recorded stories and local folklore. Heading up the project was Stetson Kennedy, a young student from Jacksonville, and the writer Zora Neale Hurston, a white man and a black woman working and traveling together in the Jim Crow South.

Stetson Kennedy still lives near Jacksonville. He recounts those years with Zora Neale Hurston, along with their original recordings in this story about the Florida Folklife Project.

Mr. STETSON KENNEDY (Florida Folklife Project): Would you say your name, please?

Ms. IRENE JACKSON: Irene Jackson.

Mr. KENNEDY: And how old are you?

Ms. JACKSON: I'll be 40 my next birthday.

Mr. KENNEDY: Where were you brought up?

Ms. JACKSON: In South Jacksonville, Florida.

Mr. KENNEDY: Tell us about what you're going to sing.

Ms. JACKSON: It's just a play we used to have when we were children, and we would be playing church, and rather than to sing church songs, we'd make up our songs and we called it our play church.

Mr. KENNEDY: You did?

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah.

Mr. KENNEDY: Uh-huh. Well, would you start in with a little bit?

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) I lost my Jersey cow last year. Where you reckon I found her? I found her in the forks of the road with a buzzard buzzing around her. I went down to the chicken house, I fell down on my knee. Before I could steal a chicken...

Mr. KENNEDY: I referred to the entire operation as a Florida treasure hunt, and these field workers were one and all very excited about what they were doing.

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) Lord have mercy on my soul. How many chicken have I stole? Two last night, two before. I'm going tonight and steal two more. I've been stealing chickens, baby, stealing chickens all my days.

Mr. KENNEDY: I think they were fully aware that what they were doing was unique probably, you know, in history, that never before had any society designated certain people to run around and record what was going on, and especially what tales people were telling and songs they were singing.


Mr. KENNEDY: This is the Florida folklore recording expedition, jointly sponsored by the Library of Congress and the WPA Florida Writers' Project. Stetson Kennedy is the intermediary, interviewer, operator.

I'm Stetson Kennedy, and I'm facing my 85th birthday.


Mr. KENNEDY: Well, why don't you tell us how it would go.

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) This is the house that little Jack built. Yeah. This is the rat that went in the house that little Jack built. Yeah, man.

Mr. KENNEDY: And during the period 1937 to '42, I served as state director of folklore and ethnic studies for the WPA Florida Writers' Project.


Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) This is the the dog that killed the cat that caught the rat that threatened the house that little Jack built. Amen.

Mr. KENNEDY: What is your name?

Mr. WILLIE MAE BROWN: Willie Mae Brown.

Mr. KENNEDY: So you have a real turpentine song.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

Mr. KENNEDY: What do you mean by `real turpentine song'? You sing it in your work?

Mr. BROWN: Just one I made up.

Mr. KENNEDY: One you made up.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

Mr. KENNEDY: What's the name of the song?

Mr. BROWN: "Turpentine Blues."

Mr. KENNEDY: "Turpentine Blues."

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

Mr. KENNEDY: All right. Go to it.

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) Ma would do the stealing, Pa would....

Mr. KENNEDY: Turpentine, of course, was a major American industry, Southern industry, for generations, and it consisted of cutting the faces of the pine trees and letting the sap run into buckets, turning it into turpentine and tar and...


Mr. BROWN: ...take away the money and give it to the candy man.

Mr. KENNEDY: that generations of particularly blacks, the labor was provided by African Americans. And they were living in virtual slavery, debt slavery, almost never saw any cash money--in remote camps in the woods in the same kind of shanties that the slaves had lived in and nothing to eat but what the company commissary issued them at double or triple prices. And the threat of flogging or even killing if they tried to run away--as the operators put it, trying to run off without paying their debts. And so you just called a sheriff or his neighbors, and they would catch them and flog them and put them back to work.


Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) One more time...

Group of Men: (Singing) ...Pride of Man.

Unidentified Man #2: Here I go, right back in jail again. Ooh. Here I go, right back in jail again. I don't have any money, and I sure don't have no friends.

Mr. KENNEDY: In Cross City, Florida, one of the largest turpentine camps in the state, we organized a recording session around a campfire at night. And after a while I began asking questions about `Why don't you leave and get out of it?' And one elderly hand, as they called themselves, he said this: that `The onliest way out is to die out.' Said if he tries to leave, they'll kill you because they got folks out in those woods to bury you. And the minute I started asking questions like that and getting responses like that, some of the young blacks jumped up and ran off into the woods to serve as sentries, to make sure we'd get warning if the woods rider showed up. And sure enough, a bit later, they came dashing back up and said, `Sing something quick. Here come the man.'


Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I was stranger here, just got into town...

Group of Men: (Singing) Hum. Hum. Hum.

Mr. KENNEDY: What is your name?

Mr. JAMES GRIFFIN: James Griffin.

Mr. KENNEDY: How old are you, James?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Twenty-one.

Mr. KENNEDY: You say that you have this song that you have composed. What do you call the song?

Mr. GRIFFIN: "Jitterbug."

Mr. KENNEDY: "Just A Jitterbug."

Mr. GRIFFIN: "Just A Jitterbug."

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, you go right ahead then and sing this song just as you've composed it and as you play it with the band each Friday night.

Mr. GRIFFIN: (Singing) Just a jitterbug. Just a crazy mug. He's young and wild, not the style. Just a jitterbug. Drank whiskey by the jug. Just foolish, crazy mug. He's young and wild and not the style. Just a jitterbug.

Mr. KENNEDY: James Griffin was one of the turpentine hands at the Cross City turpentine establishment. And he was a teen-ager and he wore one of the straw hats characteristic of the '30s, a flat-top straw hat, very dapper guy. And he sang `Just a jitterbug. Just a lazy, crazy mug. Drink liquor by the jug. May not know the Golden Rule, but boy, he could shag.'

Mr. GRIFFIN: (Singing) ...know the Golden Rule, but boy, he could shag. Just a jitterbug. Just a crazy mug. He's young and wild. He's not the style. He's just a jitterbug.

Ms. ZORA NEALE HURSTON (Florida Folklife Project): My name is Zora Neale Hurston, and I'm going to sing a gambling song that I collected at Balsted, Florida. Turpentine was still there, and the men are playing a game called Georgia Skin. That's the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South, and they lose money on the drop of a card, the fall of a card.

Mr. KENNEDY: It's probably the only audio recording of Zora Neale Hurston in existence, and she just goes on and on for hours being Zora and laughing and singing and telling tales.

Ms. HURSTON: And then the man will say--he want them to put the bets down, and they'll say, `Put the money on the wood and make the bet go good. And then again, put it in sight and save a fight.' And so they'd all get the bets down and then he start and they'll holler. `Let the deal go down. Boys, let the deal go down.' A card done fell. `Here, take another card. Take this queen.' `Oh, no, I don't play them gals till way later tonight. Give me another card. I don't want no queen.' `Put up some more money. Put up some more money, you hen-picked shorty.'

Mr. KENNEDY: She had already published her first two books by that time, but she wanted a job and was given the same job title that I had when I started out. I was junior interviewer. Imagine Zora Hurston, junior interviewer. She had already had her degrees from Boaz and Columbia and Barnard and so on.


Ms. HURSTON: (Singing) Some folks call me a toe-low shaker. It's a doggone lie. I'm a backbone breaker. Well, you may go, but this will bring you back.

Mr. KENNEDY: You said you learned it in a crowd. How do you learn most of your songs?

Ms. HURSTON: I learn them--I just get in the crowd with the people, and if they're singing, then I listen as best I can, then I start to joining in with a phrase or two, and then finally I get so I can sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing them just like them. And then I carry it in my memory.

Mr. KENNEDY: And I recall asking her--I said, `Zora, do you know something called "Uncle Bud"?' And she giggled and said, `Yes, I know it.'


Ms. HURSTON: "Uncle Bud" is not a work song. It's a sort of social song for amusement, and it's so widely distributed, it's growing all the time by incremental repetition. And it is known all over the South. No matter where you go, you can find verses of "Uncle Bud." It's the favorite song, and the men get to working in every kind of work and they just yell down on "Uncle Bud," and nobody in particular leads it. Everybody puts in his verse when he gets ready.

Mr. KENNEDY: Is it sung before the respectable ladies?

Ms. HURSTON: Never. It's one of those juke songs, and the woman that they sing "Uncle Bud" in front of is a juke woman.

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, let's hear it.

Ms. HURSTON: Yes. (Singing) Uncle Bud got caught and it sure needs shuggin'. Uncle Bud got gals, it sure needs drinkin'. Uncle Bud. Uncle Bud. Uncle Bud, Uncle Bud, Uncle Bud.

Mr. KENNEDY: The big idea was that instead of running around looking for these songs, we'd just bring Zora to Jacksonville and put her down in a chair and tell her to give, you know, everything she could think of. And so we did exactly that.


Ms. HURSTON: This song I got a Callahan, Florida, which is sort of a railroad center.

Mr. KENNEDY: And what kind of song is it?

Ms. HURSTON: This is not exactly a song, it's a chant for the men lining. You know, a railroad rail weighs 900 pounds, and the men have to take these lining bars and get it in shape to spike it down. And while they're doing that, why, they have a chant that they use the rhythm to work it into place, and then the boss hollers `Bring in my hammer gang' and they start to spiking it down. And this is a chant for lining a rail.

(Singing) Ah, Mobile. Ah, an Alabama. Ha!

Mr. KENNEDY: There were really no accommodations for blacks--no motels and hotels--and it was so bad that Zora frequently had to sleep in her beat-up Chevy.


Ms. HURSTON: I lay shaking. Ha! I lay breaking. Ha! I lay shaking. Ha! I just here. Ha!

Mr. KENNEDY: As a matter of fact, things were so bad that throughout the Southern states of North America, it was illegal, a matter of law, for whites and blacks to sit down at public accommodations--lunch counters, hotels. There was virtually no aspect of life in which you weren't required to be apart. And it was enforced, of course, not just by police power, but by vigilante, peer group, Ku Klux Klan or whatever. You could get killed lighting somebody's cigarette or shaking hands, both parties, white and black. They did get killed.


Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) One day God was a walkin'...

Group of Men: (Singing) Glory. Love him, don't you know, oh, Lord. Well, Jesus...

Mr. KENNEDY: And we solved it, so to speak, by having Zora go out ahead as a scout into the communities and identify people who had something to give, and send us the list with addresses and so on, and sometimes she would wait and take part in the recordings. Sometimes she would go ahead to the next place.


Unidentified Man #5: In the early days of the settlers in South Carolina, Beaufort County, when the church was first established there, before there were schools and seminaries, and instead of being able to read or take from the Bible, preachers preached mostly by imagination. He just imagined something and went on to preach it in a form of dialect as I shall give you now, as near as I can imitate him. He said, `Sisters and brothers, me be gonna will talk this morning about God and Adam. God tell us, now you have to eat of all the trees in the garden, but the day you eat of that tree in the middle of the garden, that be day you die. The woman that God give man did sneak out close to garden and she loved that apple hanging on the tree. He'll snatch them down and bite them and say, "Mmm, them taste so good," and went back and give man a bite and man, it taste so good, and man--he like 'em, oh. Man get scared then. Went way back down the garden and hide himself behind a tree. When he get down there and hide himself behind a tree, in the cool evening God will come back to see about 'em. When God bent to come back down there, say, "I gave so many sweet thing out there planted--orange tree and apple tree and banana tree. The palm trees, some of their sweet things and a little jar of molasses."'

Mr. KENNEDY: One of the first things we did with the recording machine when Zora got it on loan from the Library of Congress, we went to Eartha White's mission, located in the heart of the black ghetto in Jacksonville, a soup kitchen, and they provided not only soup, but clothing and sometimes lodging. Old folks home. It was the only thing going, really, for Afro-Americans, the only place that they could go. Many ex-slaves were living there and eating there.


Mr. KENNEDY: Now what is your whole name?

Ms. ANNIE WHITTAKER: Annie Whittaker.

Mr. KENNEDY: And you're about 70 years old, are you?

Ms. WHITTAKER: Yes, sir.

Mr. KENNEDY: I see. Now what is the title of the song that you're going to lead?

Ms. WHITTAKER: `Lord, I'm running, trying to make a hundred. Ninety-nine and a half won't do.'

Mr. KENNEDY: Now why did you--you say this song came from?

Ms. WHITTAKER: Just ima--it just come to me and I sung it out of my heart.

Mr. KENNEDY: Sung right out of your heart, huh?

Ms. WHITTAKER: Yes, sir, I just...

Mr. KENNEDY: I suppose that you've made this song rather popular. Now where is it sung today?

Ms. WHITTAKER: In Georgia, Florida, Alabama and...

Mr. KENNEDY: I see. Well, thank you so much. Now we're going to have the entire group sing with you, and you're going to lead them.


Group of People: (Singing) Lord, I'm running, trying to make a hundred. Ninety-nine and a half won't do...

Ms. WHITTAKER: Lord, I'm prayin'.

Mr. KENNEDY: So on the first venture to the Eartha White Mission, I had discovered that one of the best ways to break the ice in these expeditions was to--this big machine had this prototype thing; it had the capacity for instant playback. So I'd let them sing a stanza or two of something and pretend I just wanted to check the machine, but the big idea was to, you know, get them excited about hearing themselves. And it always worked, and you couldn't stop them after that, you know.

But anyway, this time, Eartha White says, `Hold it right there.' They were going to have a little prayer. And what she prayed was, `Dear Lord, this is Eartha White talking to you again.' She said, `Just want to thank you for giving mankind the intelligence to create such a marvelous machine and for a president like Franklin D. Roosevelt that cares about preserving the songs that people sing.' And that was her prayer.


Mr. KENNEDY: Would you give your name and your age, please?

Mr. H.W. STUCKEY: My name is H.W. Stuckey. I'm 43 years old.

Mr. KENNEDY: You're also a preacher, aren't you, sir?

Mr. STUCKEY: Yes, sir.

Mr. KENNEDY: What congregation or what...

Mr. STUCKEY: Missionary Baptist.

Mr. KENNEDY: As a Missionary Baptist does your church approve of singing?

Mr. STUCKEY: No, sir, they do not.

Mr. KENNEDY: But you're going to help us out with these, however.

Mr. STUCKEY: Yes, sir, in order to preserve the songs of my childhood days on a farm in South Carolina. Shall I make an explanation of this one?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes, please do.

Mr. STUCKEY: Yes, sir. During my early childhood days, my brother-in-law used to carry me about with him at night to these old-fashioned dances. They would often send for him for 10 and 15 miles around to come and call sets. And one of the songs I remember well was like this.

(Singing) ...Starching, ironing, knittin' ever new. I have no one to help me and I had it all to do. Lord, I wished I was a single man again. Now do it to the right. Then do it to the left. Now do it to the head and do it to the foot. Now swing side of the course she ain't been swung tonight. When I was a single man, I could live at ease. Now I am a married man. I got my wife to please. Lord, I wished I was a single man again. Now do it to the right. Then do it to the left. Now do it to the head and do it to the foot. Now swing side of the course she hasn't been swung tonight.


Dr. CORSE: This is Mrs. Rolla Southworth, state director of the Professional and Service Projects of the WPA in Florida, who will give us her opinion of the recording program of the folk songs in Florida.

Mrs. ROLLA SOUTHWORTH (State Director of Professional and Service Projects, WPA): Well, Dr. Corse, it would really seem that we have finally grown up as a nation that we can spend a day recording such folklore as we have heard today. And this is only a beginning. Personally, my greatest interest is in the Negro folklore and how justly proud we all are of Zora Hurston, whose fine literary ability and wealth of experience has made our recordings possible today.

Dr. CORSE: Thank you, Ms. Southworth.

What kind of a song is this, Zora?

Ms. HURSTON: Well, they sing this song when they're jumping the fire dance.

Dr. CORSE: What is the fire dance?

Ms. HURSTON: The fire dance is some sort of African survival in the West Indies, and they beat the drums and sing these little songs.

(Singing) Mr. Brown, I want your daughter. Oh, Mr. Brown. Court her like a lady. Oh, Mr. Brown. Young lady. Oh, Mr. Brown. Oh, Mr. Brown. Oh, Mr. Brown. Oh, Mr. Brown. Oh, Mr. Brown. Young lady. Oh, Mr. Brown. Oh, Mr. Brown.

And they keep that up until the drum is cold, and then they change it and they'd sing another song.

Mr. KENNEDY: Some of the interesting things to me about working with Zora, she was always coming up with the best of everything, you know, in terms of folklore. She had such an ear for it. I think every people in the world could wish they had had a Zora to immortalize their cultures.


Ms. JACKSON: Now, children...

Mr. KENNEDY: I always thought her definition of folklore--that folklore is the boiled-down juice or pot liquor of human living.


Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) If a man born in Georgia, well, he a Georgiaman. If he born in Carolina, what kind of man is he? He's a Caroline. If he's born in Florida, well, what is he? He's a Floridian. Well, children, I was born in the bed, and what is I? You's a bedbug. You ain't nothing but a bedbug, just running around, biting up people and, Reverend, you'd better stop it before you get your neck broke, because you are a bedbug.

Group of Men: (Singing) I'm a pilgram; I'm a stranger...

LYDEN: Our story was narrated and recorded by Stetson Kennedy. It was produced by Barrett Golding. For more on the Florida Folklife Project, visit our Web site at


Group of Men: (Singing) ...One more time: Pride of Man.