Canning the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston & the Florida Federal Writers Project

Canning the Folk was last updated on
Wednesday 22 April 2020


Wednesday 22 April 2020: First, recognize that this page is in preliminary development. I have a bad habit of “publishing” incomplete materials early — mainly because I want to see how content and design bounce off each other in real space and in real time. If you do somehow manage to find your way to this page sooner than later, please note that the content, design, and usability of this page will change substantially throughout Summer 2020. This is one of my Covid-19 projects, so to speak, and I hope to have it optimized the way I’m imagining it by August 2020.

So what is “Canning the Folk”…? In essence, this is an online and public adaptation of my Masters thesis, defended and published way back in 2005 at the University of Oklahoma. After graduate school, I moved quite assertively into teaching and course development roles more so than I did into researching and publishing roles in the conventionally traditional, academic sense. Though I focus primarily on teaching and course development, not to mention my forays into naturalism and photography, I remain –-to this day— extraordinarily passionate about Zora Neale Hurston, the Florida Federal Writers Project, and the issues discussed/argued in my original thesis. In short, I love this stuff. Thus, I’ve decided to revisit this old project —fifteen years already?— and tinker with it a bit, perhaps update it for the world we live in today, a world decidedly different than the one this thesis was originally written in response to. I’ll update passages and citations, as well as build in original photography from Eatonville and FWP source audio recordings discussed in the text itself.

When this site is optimized to a functionally current mode, I’ll update this pre-introduction accordingly. Until then, I’ll be intermittently working on links, media, and text.


Table of Contents


I. Eatonville and the Textual Representations of the Speakerly Folk

◦ Zora Neale Hurston and the Everyday Folk
◦ Dialogism and Authenticity of the Everyday Folk
◦ Fictionalizing Eatonville
◦ Authenticity and the Critical Reception of Their Eyes Were Watching God
◦ The Speakerly Folk and the Everyday

II. “Canning” the Florida Folk

◦ Recording the Florida Folk
◦ Aura, Authenticity and the Folklore Recordings of the FWP
◦ Locating Authenticity in Performance
◦ Performance Value

III. Canning Geography and Zora Neale Hurston

◦ Objectifying the Folk and Second Nature
◦ Mobility in the Eatonville of Hurston’s Youth
◦ The Florida Railroad
◦ Establishing Geographic Aura with the FWP
◦ Eatonville and Geographic Aura Today
◦ Conclusion

Conclusion: Epilogue

Works Cited


Since the late 1970s, academic and consumer interest in Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction and ethnography has continued to grow.  Quite literally brought back from the edge of obsolescence, Hurston was reintroduced to the national literary landscape through the work of Robert Hemenway and Alice Walker.  Since that time, Hurston has been incorporated into the classroom and home, in work and at play.  Along with this rediscovery of Hurston, the ethnographical contexts of both her fiction and non-fiction have also been reframed in contemporary academia. Henry Louis Gates, utilizing Bakhtinian dialogic theory, situates Hurston’s fiction in what he calls, “The Speakerly Text.”  Gates recognizes Hurston’s drive to represent the everyday people she wrote about through the use of dialogue and performative action.  Hurston’s texts, Gates argues, represent not only the people she wrote about, but also how they lived their lives through a dialogic, performative structure.  Hurston strove to authentically represent the working class, African American south of her day.  She did this not only in her ethnography, but also in her fiction.

In 1939 Hurston worked as a field researcher for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.  Having already made her mark as an author of both fiction and ethnography, Hurston’s involvement with the FWP was a result of the financial hardships so many suffered at this time.  The program itself was a part of the WPA, which sought to generate work and income for economically hard-hit Americans at this time.  Despite Hurston’s superior credentials in writing, ethnography, and publications, she was officially hired at the relatively low position of “field worker.”  Hurston both served as an interviewer and as an interviewee for the Florida project.  The project recorded volumes of folkloric performances from working class interview subjects in the department’s Jacksonville studios.  In these recordings, the dominantly white members of the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed their subjects on geography, folklore and their histories.  Further, the interview subjects were frequently requested to perform and simulate folkloric texts in the studio. Much of the material gathered in Florida wound up in the published book, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State.  This book functions primarily as a driving guide aimed at the newly emergent population of automobile tourists.  Folklore, represented in this book, is essentially used to decorate the state and its various regions for the automobile tourist.  It is used, to put it bluntly, as a promotion of tourism.  

In this thesis, I critique and analyze Hurston’s perceptions of folklore and ethnography.  I contrast this with the FWP’s own views, in both the textual publications and productions, as well as in the 1939 audio recordings made in Jacksonville, Florida.  We quickly find that Hurston’s ideas of folklore and ethnography are indeed grounded in a Bakhtinian model of performative dialogism and that the Florida FWP’s dominant views lean more toward a traditional, monological view of folklore as objects that have been handed down through tradition.  By uncovering this rift between Hurston and her colleagues in the FWP, we will see how important geography is for each of the parties.  For Hurston, each unique moment in space and time at the moment of performance is where folklore exists.  The FWP, on the other hand, sought to find the geographic and temporal sources of where and when the folklore had emerged, in the past.  

Through this analysis, I will then look to where we are now, in the early 21st century.  By examining the Zora Neale Hurston Festival, held annually in Eatonville, Florida, and with a consideration of other technologically mediated folkloric performances, I will show how the dialogic performative nature of Hurston’s folklore can still exist and develop today.  Other such performances and representations, on the other hand, are more in line with the FWP’s view of folklore as something located in the past and is now simply a monological tradition of old works.  As was the case with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project publication, folklore in this light can be used to serve as an advertisement for tourism.


Railroad Bill and the Elusive Folkloric Character

“Railroad Bill was a mighty mean man
He shot the midnight lantern out of brakeman’s hand
I’m going to ride old Railroad Bill.

“Railroad Bill took my wife,
Said if I didn’t like it, he would take my life,
I’m going to ride old Railroad Bill.”
(“Railroad Bill”)

In 1972, Ishmael Reed published his poem “Railroad Bill,” a reworking of the song that originated from early twentieth century folk traditions.  In the earlier version, Railroad Bill was depicted as a “mighty mean man” (Smith). Always on the railroad line, always moving, and always getting in trouble, Railroad Bill was very much a trickster figure.  The character is common in early twentieth century folk music of the South, as well as the Virginian region.  Among the variations of this particular folk tradition, two themes are common: Railroad Bill’s indignant attitude to those in authority and his constant mobility.

Reed’s poem reinterprets the renegade outlaw of Railroad Bill first from the traditions of conjure and hoodoo in southern African American cultures.

Railroad Bill, a conjure man
Could change hisself to a tree
He could change hisself to a
Lake, a ram, he could be
what he wanted to be. (2288)

As Reed shows us, Railroad Bill has the ability to transform himself into anything at will.  For example, when a slavemaster chases Railroad Bill, he easily disappears.  In another instance, he turns himself into a dog and leads the pack that was chasing him “around and around” (2288).  He can also take on the guise of Morris Slater, arguably the original source of Railroad Bill in the late 1800s.  Again and again, Railroad Bill finds himself in trouble, living on the margins of society, half in the light and half in the shadows, being chased by men with guns.  Then, the “chorus” of the poem shifts.  Reed writes

Railroad Bill was a conjure man he
Could change hisself to a song. He
Could change hisself to some blues . . . (2288)

Railroad Bill’s escape through the guise of blues and music is an important development. Not only can he escape geographically through space and time (as in running), but also mentally through the blues.  In short, music is not only an artistic process, but also a means of escape and resistance to his environment.  

Reed gives us more verse-stories of Railroad Bill on the run.  Often, he is chased by the law that is fully armed and ready to shoot him down.  Despite society’s best efforts, however, Railroad Bill is always able to stay a few steps ahead, elusive and out of reach. Eventually, and surprisingly, Hollywood gets hold of Railroad Bill.  “They’ll shoot Bill,” Reed writes, “zoom Bill and pan old Bill until he looks plain sick” (2291). Hollywood and the medium of film become a penetrative weapon in misrepresenting and distorting Railroad Bill and his world. However, in Reed’s interpretation, this attempt to appropriate and commodify the elusive trickster figure ultimately fails. 

Railroad Bill was a wizard. And
His final trick was tame. Wasn’t
Nothing to become some celluloid
And do in all the frames.
Destroy the original copy
Pour chemicals on the master’s

And how did he manage technology
And how did Bill get so modern?
He changed hisself to a production
assistant and went to work with
The scissors.
While nobody looked he scissored
Old Bill he used the scissors. (2292)

Having hidden beneath and within the film industry itself, Railroad Bill hacks and cuts his own essence from within the system.  Railroad Bill, at this point, is not a static folkloric character but rather a dynamic entity that cannot be captured and reified. The editor who frees Railroad Bill from this celluloid bondage liberates the folkloric tradition in general from the servitude of mainstream Hollywood.  Railroad Bill once again escapes the dominant culture through subversion; only now, it is the slavery of mechanical reproduction that proves to be the battleground.

Railroad Bill becomes many different people in Reed’s poem.  Arguably, Reed is showing us that Railroad Bill not only escapes his slave master and the law but that he is also able to extricate himself from a new oppressive system, that of the modern “culture industry.”  When “Railroad Bill” is captured, reified, and exploited on the silver screen, he immediately vanishes and is then hacked apart by himself — that is, by a production assistant quite literally editing the film.  He cannot be captured and contained, either by the dominant white culture or by media representations of himself.  

Railroad Bill in Reed’s poem functions as a metaphor for the recording process and technology of African American folklore.  The theme is a common one for African American writers before Reed.  Langston Hughes, for example, writes 

You’ve done taken my blues and gone –
You sing ‘em in Broadway
And you sing ‘em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ‘em up with symphonies
And you fixed ‘em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone. (104)

Whereas Reed sees African American folk culture inevitably evading being captured, Hughes sees these folk traditions (blues, in this case) being plucked from the African American context and exploited by the dominant white entertainment industry.  In both cases, the end product is a representation of the folk (the film in Reed and the Hollywood Bowl rendition of the blues, among others, in Hughes) that is not representative of the folk or of African American culture.  

Zora Neale Hurston’s work with the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930’s sought to represent the African-American folk in Eatonville, Florida, and other communities.  The main target of exploration in this thesis is the recording of folklore in general and the opposing views of folklore, authenticity, and representation of the folk between Hurston and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project in particular.  The FWP and Hurston both wanted to represent the folk, but their respective views of where to find the folklore and how to represent the folk were in conflict. Hurston viewed folklore as being primarily performative. As a result, folklore is ever changing, and its authenticity can only be gauged in terms of its localized performance.  As a performative and dialogic interaction between people in real space and time, folklore, for Hurston, resists being captured and “canned” by recording technology.  Further, it functions more as an evolving text through time (via performance) than it does as a singular work handed down from the past.  The Federal Writers’ Project, on the other hand, worked toward isolating, classifying, and labeling folkloric texts as objects.  For much of the FWP, folklore was something of the past, relics of the old, oral cultures.  The FWP searched to identify singular roots to these folkloric texts and to identify what was authentic in terms of authorship and location.  

In the first chapter, I analyze the printed representations of folklore as produced by both Zora Neale Hurston and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.  The primary printed product of the FWP in the state was Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State.  In that text, folklore is presented as static and as a decorative textual background to promote tourism for the state.  Hurston worked as both an interview subject and as a field collector for the FWP; however, her own published representations of folklore differ greatly.  I will argue that both her fictional and ethnographic works typically lead toward the same goal regarding folklore:  Hurston dialogically represents the folk in action.  Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of dialogism and monologism, I show how Hurston recognizes the dialogic nature of folklore and attempts to represent folklore in action through narrative frames, whether in her novels, short stories, or ethnographic publications.  The Florida Federal Writers’ Project, however, leans heavily toward a more monological view of folklore, as can be seen in the Florida guide.   In this publication, the folk tradition is represented as static, singular, and as an object, recovered and salvaged from the past. 

In Chapter Two, I discuss the use of audio technology in recording folklore during this time.  In 1939, the Florida Federal Writers’ Project obtained machines that could record sound onto acetate disks.  In Jacksonville, the FWP held many recording “sessions” in which working-class subjects were interviewed about and then asked to perform folklore.  Hurston, herself, also served as an interview subject.  Through studying the environment of these recordings as well as the question and answer sessions between the white FWP interviewers and the African American interview subjects, we can see important differences in perspective regarding folklore.  The interview subjects recognize the duplicity and dialogic nature of folklore as performative.  The FWP, on the other hand, seeks clarification of who wrote what, where and when.  The FWP is primarily concerned with “canning” the Florida folk onto these records so that they can be further interrogated, preserved and classified as static objects.  Hurston recognizes the value in recording these songs and stories, but only in terms of performance.  For Hurston, these recordings don’t really “capture” or “can” the folklore itself: they can only record individual performances from people who have been removed from the folkloric environment and are being asked to simulate folklore in a recording studio.  In my analysis I mostly rely on Walter Benjamin’s model of “aura” regarding the mechanical reproduction of “works of art.” Benjamin’s notion of aura not only allows us to consider the authenticity of recorded folklore, but also geographical issues that arise when considering both the recording studio and the changing perspectives of space and time with the rise of mechanized travel. 

In Chapter Three, I examine how all of these issues have been impacted by the twentieth century rise of technology, transportation and the subsequent perceived shrinking of space and time.  From the railroad of the early twentieth century through the automobile, I explore issues of first and second nature through the theoretical framework of Georg Lukács as well as the economic factors of folklore, representation, and tourism.  Folklore, I will show, reflects the awareness of these issues by its participants.  Finally, I address issues of aura and authenticity in light of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival, held annually in and around Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida.  

Chapter One:
Eatonville and the Textual Representations of the Speakerly Folk

Representations of the Florida Folk:
Zora Neale Hurston and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project

“The Negro’s universal mimicry is not so much a thing in itself as an evidence of something that permeates his entire self.  And that thing is drama.” (“Characteristics of Negro Expression” 830)

Zora Neale Hurston frequently discussed the function of drama in the lives of the everyday African Americans of her time.  “Drama” for her is quite literally “action.” In her fiction and non-fiction alike, Hurston sought to use drama in a way that accurately represented the actions of everyday, working people.  This approach was very contrary to the ideological beliefs of the Florida Federal Writers Project of this same era, which instead sought out “original,” authentic texts that would capture the reality of working class African Americans.

In this chapter, I first outline Hurston’s views of folklore as they function in her fiction and non-fiction. I will then historically contextualize Hurston’s views with those of the editors and researchers of the Florida Federal Writer’s Project, with whom she also worked as an ethnographer, researcher, editor, and writer.  While Hurston did not believe that folklore was static and saw no use in trying to locate an original authenticity in stories, the FWP went to great lengths to not only locate singular works of folkloric pieces (as textual relics), but also to present these relics as a kind of geographical ornamentation aimed at decorating and enhancing the state for the newly rising number of automotive tourists. By applying Mikhail Bakhtin’s model of dialogism vs. monologism, I will show this dramatic tension between Hurston and the Florida Federal Writer’s Project as I examine her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and ethnographic text, Mules and Men.  These folkloric representations of working class African Americans exemplify what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls “Speakerly Text” in action. Just as dialogic drama and performance is central, in Hurston’s view, to the everyday lives of African Americans, so too is it central to Hurston’s means of representing these very same everyday African Americans.  As Henry Louis Gates’ argues, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a Speakerly Text.  Hurston, I will argue, deploys performative, dialogic representations of folklore, in both her fiction and ethnography in order to best represent what I call the Speakerly Folk.

Zora Neale Hurston and the Everyday Folk 

In 1935, Zora Neale Hurston published her first ethnographic book, Mules and Men.  A study of African American culture, the book explores the folk cultures of central Florida and the Hoodoo cultures of southern Louisiana. Mules and Men weaves folkloric tales with her arguments about the nature of folklore. It becomes difficult to separate Hurston from her subject matter, as she herself is an element of the culture being studied.  For Hurston, folklore and culture function through action and events, ever-changing and always in motion, not something simply handed down from the past.  “It is still in the making,” she writes.  “Nothing is too old or too new, domestic or foreign, high or low.” Further, Hurston argues, this shows “the adaptability of the black man” (“Characteristics of Negro Expression” 836).  Given the performative nature of folkloric culture, as Hurston saw it, it makes sense to recognize in her literature attempts to show folklore through action and speech, not simply through description and analysis.  Further, this view shows the precedence Hurston established in choosing to represent ordinary, working people in the everyday world over explicitly remarking upon racial politics of the time, unlike some of her contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance.

Among other things, Hurston was exploring the “average, struggling, non-morbid Negro,” what she called “the best-kept secret in America” (“What White Publishers Won’t Print” 954).  For Hurston, the racial and gender divisions of her time were certainly important, but they simply weren’t the only things people thought about in everyday life.  Famously, she wrote, “I am not tragically colored.  There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes” (“How It Feels to be Colored Me” 827).  That is not to say Hurston did not make overt political comments throughout her career, as she certainly did.  But for Hurston, in folklore and culture she found celebration and triviality alongside the important race, gender and class issues of her day.  Sometimes explicitly, but usually implicitly, Hurston interwove her political arguments within the dialogues of everyday folk, denying the assumption that all African Americans were consistently and totally consumed by the morbidity of being “tragically colored”. However, her views were not always shared by her contemporary writers and critics, from the Harlem Renaissance to the Federal Writers Project.

In “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” Hurston explores what she calls “The American Museum of Unnatural History,” a system of “uncomplicated stereotypes” (951).  Identifying two dominant stereotypical representations, Hurston describes the frequent descriptions of African Americans as either playing the banjo on a stump without a care in the world or only debating about the social injustices of the racial divide.  Missing is the representation of everyday folk – the working class – people loving, people arguing, people living.  Further, Hurston elsewhere argues that within the Harlem Renaissance itself, there are misrepresentations of African American everyday life.  Essentially functioning as an upper-class elite, many individuals within the Renaissance itself, Hurston argues, did not understand the cultural underpinnings of the majority of African Americans, the working class.  Somewhere between the elite Race Champion and the Stereotypical Fool lies the lost reality of average, everyday African Americans.  “Literature and the arts,” Hurston argues, “are supposed to hold up the mirror to nature. With only the fractional ‘exceptional’ and the ‘quaint’ portrayed, a true picture of Negro life in America cannot be” (“What White Publishers Won’t Print” 955).  

Hurston would run into similar problems during her time with the Federal Writers Project in the late 1930s.  Working as a “fieldworker,” Hurston was denied an official editorial position because of her race, despite the fact that she was clearly the most-published member of the entire Florida division (Boyd 313-329).  While the FWP developed its primary project, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, Hurston spent much of her time working on The Florida Negro, a book that would never find publication in Hurston’s lifetime.  We could say that Hurston’s frustrations with the Florida Guide radiated from the FWP’s use of folklore simply as ornamentation decorating the state. A folkloric story would be told relating to a certain community on the guidebook’s driving tour.  Though bits of her work made it to print in the Florida Guide, Hurston ultimately spent most of her “official” time working on The Florida Negro and her own ethnographic project, Tell My Horse.  Essentially, in terms of the folklore at hand, the problems arose from the FWP’s desire to represent culture and folklore authoritatively and with a keen interest geared toward attracting tourists.  In short, the Federal Writers Project was much more concerned with generating revenue through tourism than it was in creating an authentic representation of Floridian culture.  Macmillan and Co., in their publication-rejection letter to Hurston, wrote, “We have reluctantly been forced to the conclusion that there is no place where such a volume would fit in with our publishing schedule” (The Florida Negro, Introduction, x). In other words, whereas Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State would be marketable to white tourists, The Florida Negro would not.  Rather than producing culturally representative texts of Florida, we could say the FWP was simply trying to generate tourism at the expense of authenticity.

For years, it had been Hurston’s goal to capture a “true picture” of African American culture in the South, and though her goal fell through with the FWP and in much of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston did find ways to authentically represent folklore and culture in her fiction and ethnographic writings. Hurston expressed the folklore of the African American communities of the South in both her fiction and ethnographic works as performative; the folklore and cultures were expressed through the actions and dialogue of every-day subjects and characters, not as isolated texts that can be stripped of their context and analyzed to the marrow.  

Dialogism and Authenticity of the Everyday Folk

The major problem in my field (is that collecting) must be done by individuals feeling the material as well as seeing it objectively.  In order to feel and appreciate the nuances one must be of the group. (Hurston in her Rosenwald application, qtd. in A Life in Letters x.)

In representing the everyday folk, Hurston frequently blended genres and styles to simulate what she saw as the dialogic nature of African American culture and folklore.  As working class African American culture was based primarily on orality (such as swapping stories) and mimicry through action, Hurston bases her writing through these lenses.  The text itself, be it fiction or non-fiction, cannot simply describe the cultures involved – it must also be of the culture itself.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as “a text whose rhetorical strategy is designed to represent an oral literary tradition, designed to emulate the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical patterns of actual speech and produce the illusion of oral narration” (“Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text” 72).  Being what Gates calls a “Speakerly Text,” Their Eyes Were Watching God is a prime example of this blending of ethnographical study and a fictional narrative.  Whether one is looking at the political implications of Janie’s story (of class, gender and race) or the historical accounts of early twentieth century Florida (such as the 1928 hurricane that laid waste to the Lake Okeechobee region of the state), Hurston draws these arguments and considerations into the text through a dialogical treatment of the characters involved.

Gates argues that 

Hurston realized a resonant and authentic narrative voice that echoes and aspires to the status of the impersonality, anonymity, and authority of the black vernacular tradition, a nameless, selfless tradition, at once collective and compelling, true somehow to the unwritten text of a common blackness. (75) 

Hurston’s views of African American expression in the everyday world follow these same lines.  For Hurston, mimicry itself is an expression of drama, which in turn “permeates” the African American’s “entire self” (“Characteristics” 830).  “His very words are action words,” Hurston writes, arguing that with the African American “everything is acted out” and that “action (comes) before speech” (830).  Therefore, for Hurston, the “Speakerly Text” as Gates describes it, is not simply an aesthetic benefit in representation, but a requisite for authentic representation.  Language and folklore for Hurston, the “boiled-down juice of human living” (“Folklore and Music” 875), is not static, it is not isolated – it is in perpetual development and only arises through performative action.  In this light, it follows that Hurston would choose to incorporate her folkloric enactments not only through ethnography, but also through fiction.  And in that fiction, the language itself must represent the cultures being written about through performative dialogue.

Hurston’s performative view of folklore and culture parallels Mikhail Bakhtin’s notions of heteroglossia, the utterance and dialogism explored throughout his book, The Dialogic Imagination.  Just as Hurston believes that folklore exists within the performative act, not just in the speaker or the listener alone, Bakhtin argues that language takes on meaning in a dialogical system of representation through contexts.  That is to say, language is plural in meaning.  The intentions of an utterance are not always read as intended because of the deeply complex heteroglossic stratifications of language and representation.  Meaning takes shape through a complex system between the speaker and the listener; it is shaped by the ideological contexts between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader.  For Bakhtin, the novel itself illuminates this dialogic nature of language in the system of heteroglossia.  In the novel, one finds an inherent multiplicity of voices and dialects.  Hurston, in her ethnographic writings, views folklore in the same light.  By denying a more monological, authoritative tone in her writing (such as that of the FWP or of Claude Levi-Strauss), Hurston is showing folklore in this performative sense, that folklore is not something completed and able to be isolated and studied as static.  The very act of her recording folklore further develops the context of the folklore itself, for she, herself, is not only an observer, but also a participant.  In Florida, Hurston saw a prime source of this folklore “still in the making . . . still emerging” in a state attracting “a variety of workers to its industries” (“Folklore and Music” 875).

John Lowe distinguishes three similarities Hurston shares with Mikhail Bakhtin: “the folk and their culture, the novel, and humor’s role in human relations and language” (38).  In Hurston’s novels, folklore and the working class folk take precedence in the form and content.  Further, the working class folk in these novels are shown in the light of people living everyday lives filled with both tragedy and humor.  Indeed, as Lowe also points out, Bakhtin himself wrote that the “novel’s roots must ultimately be sought in folklore” (The Dialogic Imagination 38).  Even the casual reader of Zora Neale Hurston will quickly find this to be true.  At the heart of her novels and stories lies the thickly interwoven realm of the folk.  The folk traditions of the communities being written about bleed through the narrative frames Hurston sets for her characters to act in.  In a very real way, the culture itself, the folk stories and songs that are heard within the text, function as their own kind of character of these cultures.  And, as with folklore in culture, Hurston does not always give us reasons or explanations.  It is simply a major characteristic of African American expression and of African American culture.  Though she writes of many places and cultures, one particular place is used by Hurston again and again in her attempts to express southern African American culture.  As we shall see, Eatonville, Florida became the major locus for Hurston’s representations of folklore and culture in African American cultures of the South.   

Fictionalizing Eatonville

Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions. (Dust Tracks on a Road 599.)

“I was glad when somebody told me, ‘You may go and collect Negro folk-lore,’” Hurston writes in Mules and Men (9).  In 1927, Hurston left Harlem and returned to Florida to begin collecting folklore under the guidance of Franz Boas.  Hurston chose to return to her hometown, Eatonville, to begin her collecting.  “Eatonville, the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse” (12) is considered to be the first incorporated, legally titled town chartered and governed strictly by an African American community.  About six miles north of Orlando proper, the town proved to be an ideal focus point and launching pad for Hurston’s folkloric research.  With the safety net of returning to her hometown, Hurston viewed Eatonville as the best possible place from which to begin her journeys across Florida in search of a “cross section of the Negro South” (9).  Memories of folk stories and songs performed in the town (especially on Joe Clarke’s store porch) reassured Hurston’s belief that the town would suffice as a massive source of material.  Hurston was also aware, however, that she would be seen as an outsider of sorts – for she had been away to school and earned a higher education.  In Eatonville, she would be able to work her way back into the southern, working class cultures she sought to study.

Prior to her 1927 return to Eatonville, Hurston had already been publishing works involving the Eatonville of her youth.  Three of her early short stories, “Drenched in Light” (1924), “Spunk” (1925), and “Sweat” (1926) were based on unnamed communities that are clearly inspired by the Eatonville of her youth.  “Drenched in Light” tells the story of Isis Watts, a fictional version of Hurston herself as a young child, watching the cars drive through Eatonville on their way to Orlando.  “Spunk” shows the story of a jealous love triangle between two men and a woman primarily through the narrative frame of the townsfolk talking about the story.  Elijah Moseley and Walter Thomas appear in the story, both based on actual residents of Eatonville.  “Sweat,” the story of a woman taking a stand against her abusive husband, features Moseley and Thomas, but also brings in Joe Clarke and his infamous store, as well as many other “characters” from Eatonville.  Hurston’s memories of Eatonville had already played a major role in her short fiction.  These three texts consistently employ the narrative technique of community storytelling. Whereas “Drenched in Light” is a relatively straight-forward narration of Hurston’s memories, “Spunk” and “Sweat” build into her narrative technique the use of characters commenting on and even telling the story themselves.  

Just before Hurston’s return to Eatonville for her folklore collecting, she published “The Eatonville Anthology” (1926) in three parts for The Messenger.  Composed of fourteen sections, “The Eatonville Anthology” presents snapshots of the community. Hurston, through varying styles from section to section, tries to recreate the feeling of Eatonville the community.  Stories are disjointed, yet connected.  Some are simple narrative descriptions, others are character descriptions.  The ‘Double-Shuffle’ section describes the role of music and dance in Eatonville and is followed by ‘The Head of the Nail’ section, detailing the troubles with Daisy Taylor, the “town vamp” (818-22).  

The “Anthology” ends with the untitled fourteenth section a retelling of how Brer Rabbit tricks Mr. Dog, ultimately leaving Mr. Dog with a split up the tongue and resultant, never-ending anger toward the rabbit.  The “Anthology” concludes with “Stepped on a tin, mah story ends” (824-25).  Through the cross-section of Eatonville that Hurston presents, it is fitting that the final section be an untitled, non-credited retelling of a common folk story of African American cultures of the South.  Any one of the characters could have told this story, but the folklore of the culture was shared by all within that culture.  Issues of authorship are negated in folk tradition, as the appreciation of folk comes with the act of performance; and for Hurston, this means that folk must be represented as performance.

Following “The Eatonville Anthology” and Hurston’s research-centered return to the community and Central Florida, Eatonville would become a literary representation of the real town itself.  The short story “The Bone of Contention” (1929) and Mule Bone, Hurston’s theatrical adaptation of the text in collaboration with Langston Hughes, were both set in Eatonville.  “The Gilded Six Bits” (1933) would round off the short story setting of Eatonville.  From there, she moved into novels.  Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) dramatically adapted the story of Hurston’s parents’ move from Notasulga, Alabama to Eatonville, Florida.  Finally, Mules and Men in 1935 and Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 both worked extensively from within Eatonville.  The development and use of Eatonville, not only in her ethnographical studies, but also in her fiction, is important in that with this community, Hurston was using a concentrated representation from which to show folklore and southern African American cultures at work.  Unlike her associates in the Federal Writers Project, Hurston recognized that there is no definitive “folklore” to be studied and labeled.  Folklore could only be explored through cases of performance, through action, through dialogue and motion.  With Eatonville, she found a representative micro-culture connected to the broader expanse of the African American folklore tradition she was collecting.  And with this folklore, she could frame it through a community based on communication and interaction.  

Commenting on the straightforward, non-critical presentation of Mules and Men, Sterling Brown writes that it “should be more bitter; it would be nearer the total truth” (qtd. in Hemenway 219).  The book finally found publication in 1935 after years of development under the financial sponsorship of Charlotte Osgood Mason.  Originally constructed as transcriptions of the stories themselves, the work eventually would be built by Hurston as a narrative with folkloric dimensions.  Mules and Men begins with Hurston’s return to Eatonville and central Florida in 1926 to collect folklore and ultimately ends in New Orleans with her studies in Hoodoo. “I want the reader to see why Negroes tell such glorious tales,” she told a member of the press (Hemenway 163).  Hurston claimed that she wanted “folk tales with background so that they are in atmosphere and not just stuck out into cold space” (Hemenway 163).  The balance between a scientific, ethnographic text and a consumable narrative for popular culture was delicately maintained in the final print copy of the text.  Surely the book violated clear-cut notions of an objective study of folklore, but for Hurston, this was more than tolerable.  Hurston wanted to create a book that would illuminate African American folklore and Hoodoo culture, and she wanted it to be digestible to the common public.  The end result only came about after a long series of editing and redrafting with heavy insistence from the publishers to make it more palatable for a mass audience.    

Robert Hemenway, in his biography of Hurston, writes that 

the scholarly folklorist of the thirties was expected to subordinate self to material in the interests of objectivity.  The intent was to leave the emphasis on the folklore texts that were being added to the ‘body of knowledge.’ After describing the corpse, the folklorist could perform an autopsy in order to learn how the living organism functions.  The cold text, isolated on the page for scientific study, implied the living folk, but the folk themselves were secondary to the artifact collected. (165-66)

This is a very telling and useful description of the scholarly project of folklore and ethnography in the 1930s.  In the dominant view of the function of folklore at this time, we can easily see that the collection of artifacts falls under a monological view of language – that a text is dead and can be isolated, interrogated, and decisively decoded.  Hurston’s frequent disagreements with this perspective of folklore and her common violations of strict, objective distancing indicate a perception of folklore as dynamic, mutative, and performative.  Through the narrative structure of Mules and Men, Hurston is able to dialogically show folklore at work, in action, and at play.  Analysis and dissection of the pure meanings of these texts are left to the side.  Mules and Men, ultimately, is not about what the folklore means, but rather, how it functions and is communicated within the culture.  

Folklore’s function in culture is purely contextual in Hurston’s view.  “It does not belong to any special time, place, nor people.  No country is so primitive that it has no lore, and no country has yet become so civilized that no folklore is being made within its boundaries” (“Folklore and Music” 875).  Further, Hurston draws a metaphor between the universal ends of folklore and its local incarnations.  “In folklore,” she writes, 

the world is a great, big, old serving-platter, and all the local places are like eating-plates.  Whatever is on the plate must come out of the platter, but each plate has a flavor of its own because the people take the universal stuff and season it to suit themselves on the plate. And this local flavor is what is known as originality. (“Folklore and Music” 875.) 

The arts of mimicry and adaptation, Hurston argues, are what make African American folklore so original.  As with African American music, the originality in African American folklore comes from the absorption and adaptation of pre-existent texts or of larger-scaled sets of lore.  A local community’s particular set of lore is connected to other communities, but each local set will have its own particular “taste,” as Hurston puts it.  At the root of this is the ability to mimic.  For Bakhtin, in terms of the novel, mimicry 

rips the word away from its object, disunifies the two, shows that a given straightforward generic word . . . is one-sided, bounded, incapable of exhausting the object; the process of parodying forces us to experience those sides of the object that are not otherwise included in a given genre or a given style. (55)

In short, mimicry is an enabling force to challenge the accepted, dominant meaning of any idea.  And for Hurston, folklore’s “great variety shows the adaptability of the black man: nothing is too old or too new, domestic or foreign, high or low, for his use.  God and the Devil are paired, and are treated no more reverently than Rockefeller and Ford” (“Characteristics of Negro Expression” 836).  Ultimately, Mules and Men illuminates the performative nature of folklore through speech and song.  Further, as Mules and Men shows this performative nature of folklore, so too does Hurston’s fictional projects.  

Authenticity and the Critical Reception of Their Eyes Were Watching God

During Hurston’s career, her ethnographic studies and fiction were often critiqued on the grounds of “authenticity”.  Many writers and critics had great difficulty in accepting Hurston as a member and participant of the communities she wrote about, as she herself was clearly highly literate.  In the January 1938 Journal of Negro History, for example, Ethel Forrest described Their Eyes Were Watching God as “a story of stark realism of life among the Negroes of the deep South.”  Forrest describes Hurston’s efforts as those of 

an author who shows acquaintance with the characters of the story and who in order to acquaint herself with the customs and habits of the people portrayed, lived among the Negroes of Florida and southern Georgia, where the scene is laid.  She studied them until she thoroughly understood the workings of their minds, learned to speak their language, and knew the ordinary experiences through which they would normally pass. (106)

Forrest seems to miss the fact that Hurston was actually raised in the culture she was writing about.  There’s an undercurrent in this review that Hurston couldn’t really be of this community, as the people she was writing about were of the working class South, whereas Hurston has great “skill and efficiency” in writing the story in a style so “natural and easy” (106). Gates argues that the narrative complexity of Their Eyes Were Watching God, however, was not beyond the narrative skills of the people of the South.

For Gates, Their Eyes Were Watching God is “a book that seeks to communicate the voice(s) of the culture that produced it” (Lowe 3).  Hurston is of the culture being represented and the novel, as the prime example of the Speakerly Text, “would seem primarily oriented toward imitating one of the numerous forms of oral narration to be found in classical Afro-American vernacular literature” (72).  Gates reads Their Eyes Were Watching God as the inaugural Speakerly Text, a book that blends the diegesis of action with the mimesis of dialogue in such a way as to produce a novel told through free indirect discourse, a merging not simply of “the voice of both a character and a narrator,” but of “a bivocal utterance, containing elements of both direct and indirect speech” (103).  In doing this, Hurston is able to create a more authentic, literary representation of the folkloric, oral cultures being described.  Highly dialogical, the stories within the novel are riddled with complex relationships and mixed meanings.  But many scholars of the time did not recognize the novel’s complexity.

Richard Wright criticized the book, claiming that it was nothing more than a minstrel aimed at making white people laugh, that “her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears” (“Between Laughter and Tears”). Similarly, although less critically, Alain Locke asks when Hurston will “come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplication!” (Review for Their Eyes Were Watching God). The dominant argument in both of these reviews is that African American fiction should be politically progressive, that fiction should be raising African American cultural standards – not simply expressing the way things are, much less expressing the world view of the Southern working class.  Wright and Locke, Hurston might argue, simply don’t understand what they’re talking about, that they don’t understand the majority of African Americans, those of the working class.  In her review of Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, Hurston charges that Wright’s stories are lost in “the Dismal Swamp of race hatred” and that “with his facility, one wonders what he would have done had he dealt with plots that touched the broader and more fundamental phases of Negro life instead of confining himself to the spectacular” (“Stories of Conflict” 912). Clearly there is a fundamental break between Wright and Hurston and their notions of what a novel should represent.  For Wright, the novel is a medium for overt, political criticisms.  Hurston, on the other hand, wishes to write stories that merge with the real Eatonville and other local cultures as they are, authentically.  Hurston clearly makes political arguments in her works, as well, but they emerge from the stories and the contexts as they do in real life.  Hurston sees Wright in the same light as the Race Champions she abhorred years earlier, the exploiters of the “tragically colored.”  

The Speakerly Folk and the Everyday

Essentially, the early criticisms against Hurston’s texts by Wright, Locke, and others, are based on the question of whether or not a text has the obligation to make overt political arguments in support of the race movement and whether or not these texts are propagating a stereotypical image of simple-minded African Americans.  Of the latter, we must consider the class differences between those critics and the subjects of Hurston’s works.  As for the question of whether an author has the responsibility to overtly argue a political stance, Hurston would argue certainly not.  That being said, Hurston shows cultural conflicts in her works, in both her fiction and her ethnography.  But, in her fiction, Hurston typically presents these arguments occurring within the story or within the scene and in the context of her characters.  In Their Eyes Were Watching God, for example, issues ranging from overt racism (white/black) to intra-racism (light-black/dark-black), from sexism (man/woman) to classism (upper/middle/lower) emerge in the lives of her characters.   But they are elements of the story, not the point (or argument) of the story as a whole. Functioning as a Speakerly Text, Their Eyes Were Watching God uses the citizens and characters of Eatonville and the other communities to create webs within webs of dialogue and meaning, discussions and interpretations.  Folklore underlies the culture, just as political issues do.

Similarly, in Mules and Men, Hurston uses Eatonville as a springboard from which to explore the folklore and cultures of the south.  In the frame of a narrative, Hurston shows her subjects interacting with her, swapping stories, singing and dancing to songs.  She shows the group, including herself, performing.  With herself as a part of the narrative, Hurston becomes an active participant in the acts of folklore she is recording simply by being there.  Further, we see that Hurston does not try to isolate herself as an objective observer, but rather embraces the fact that she is a participant within this culture. Ultimately, what we read in Hurston is a series of accounts of events of folklore – not a thorough dissection of all folklore, categorized, labeled and defined.  Rather than trying to decipher the universal meaning of a static folklore that does not and cannot exist, she complexly recreates the scenes she observed and was a part of.  And if one listens carefully, one will hear political issues arise through the performances of the folklore itself.

“To grasp the penetration of western civilization in a minority,” Hurston writes, “it is necessary to know how the average behaves and lives.” (“What White Publishers Won’t Print” 954).  With Eatonville as her literary locus, Hurston digs deeply into normality and the everyday folk in an attempt to explore the function of folklore and language within the circles of the majority of African Americans in the south.  The need for authentic representation was great, as the FWP and many writers of the Harlem Renaissance had not taken the everyday folk into account in their respective programs.  Hurston created this representation for them, as well as for herself; the Speakerly Folk, such as the citizens of Eatonville, lived and breathed through ever-changing systems of folklore Hurston sought to perform in her own writing.

Chapter Two:
“Canning” the Florida Folk

Issues of Aura and Authenticity in the Audio Recordings of the Florida Federal Writers’ Project and Zora Neale Hurston

Recording the Florida Folk

“Thinking of the beginnings of things in a general way, it could be said that folklore is the first thing that man makes out of the natural laws that he finds around him.” (“Folklore and Music” 876.) 

Hurston sought to represent the Speakerly Folk in both her fictional and ethnographic publications, recognizing the highly dialogical and performative nature of African American folklore and culture. In an attempt to record Florida folklore, the Florida Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) utilized new sound and recording technologies to record “live” performances of folk songs and stories.  Hurston herself was a researcher and interviewee for these recordings.  We can analyze these recordings more closely to show how Hurston’s views on folklore and authenticity come into conflict with the editors and researchers of the FWP.  Through the work of Walter Benjamin we can further illuminate this conflict and bring the opposing ideologies to light.  Whereas the FWP sought to capture and “can” folkloric songs through recordings, Hurston recognized that performances could be captured, but not folkloric songs as finished products or objects.

Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State is clearly the centerpiece of the Florida Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  As I discuss in the previous chapter, the book was designed primarily as a driving guide for white, middle-class tourists.  Folklore and other cultural characteristics of Florida were isolated and used essentially as decorations of the state, for the promotion of tourism and revenue.  Hurston’s own views on, and representations of, folklore put her at odds with the project mission of the Florida FWP.  Whereas the FWP viewed folklore as being something that can be isolated as a singular text, Hurston saw folklore in a much more dialogical context: as performative and interactive. With each performance, variations arise as a result of the participants’ local environments and contexts, which are  constantly interacting, always affecting each other. In short, a folk song or story will never cross a finishing line; unlike a written text, it will never be complete as its very existence lies in the execution of its performance. 

In addition to the print-text-based productions of the guide and The Florida Negro, the FWP also embarked on another endeavor during this time: the audio recordings of local peoples performing Florida folklore.  For the late 1930s, the recording technology that had recently been developed opened new doors for approaching folklore.  Not only could one attempt to transcribe folklore in print, one could now also record it using sound.  Stetson Kennedy, who served the Florida FWP as a State Director for the Folklore, Oral History and Ethnic Studies division, writes of the recording equipment:

‘The Thing,’ as we called the machine, looked like a phonograph, and cut with a sapphire needle directly onto a 12-inch acetate disk. Every time we shipped off another batch of disks . . . the newspapers would report, ‘Canned Florida Folksongs Sent to Washington.’ (“Florida Folklife,” emphasis added.)

During the course of the project, hundreds of recordings were made at the FWP’s home base in Jacksonville, as well as out in the field, at varying work camps and locations across the state.  Songs, stories, and lore, Hurston’s “boiled down juice of human living,” were performed and captured on these disks in studios and out in the field.  These acetate disks were to then be compiled and archived as a timeless memorial of the folk culture in Florida of the late 1930s and early 1940s.  

A fundamental division existed between Hurston and her colleagues at the Florida FWP in the supplementary audio project.  Hurston worked with the audio portion of the project on three fronts.  She helped assist in field recordings across the state, as she was in essence the key to gaining access to the work camps, given her expertise in garnering trust in the field.  In addition, Hurston also wrote the “Proposed Recording Expedition into the Floridas,” an essay sent to Benjamin A. Botkin, one of the FWP’s figureheads in the nation-wide folklore endeavor.  For Botkin, as with Hurston, folklore was to be collected from within the culture.  In reality, however, this proved difficult for the Jacksonville offices and recording facilities of the Florida FWP without Hurston’s help.  Hurston herself also functioned as an interview subject, answering the questions of the white FWP staff and performing various folk songs for the microphone before her.  In these performances, as well as many others, we see a fundamental conflict of ideology concerning folklore and the purpose of recording it.  

At stake is the question of what constitutes “authentic” folklore, as well as how the folklore functions and exists in society.  For the Florida FWP, the folk song was essentially a work.  It was an oral, culturally-based object that could be captured, recorded and preserved. The folk song was perceived to be a cohesive thing, something that could be bottled up and “canned”.  For Hurston, as we have seen, folklore is performative; therefore, each recording is only capturing a performance of the folklore, rather than the performance.  The song, itself, has no concrete center – it is not a thing, but rather a cultural interaction, a performance.   While the Florida FWP attempted to record the song as an object, or a work, Hurston treated the project as a chance to record a performance of the living folk. 

These conflicting perceptions of what constitutes “folklore” and what determines authenticity stem from differences of opinion in what constitutes a “work” and how that “work” functions.  A useful means of exploring this conflict with regard to recording technology is through the work of Walter Benjamin.  Specifically, Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” allows us to examine the Florida FWP’s recordings through a technological lens. In the following, I examine several interview/recording sessions of the Florida FWP while applying Benjamin’s notions of “aura” and “authenticity” to the recording strategies taken up by the FWP.  At the heart of this conflict is a breakdown of what constitutes a “work,” or more aptly in Benjamin’s terms, “a work of art.”  We will find that Benjamin’s theories have different implications for the two camps based on the underlying warrants of what constitutes a “work of art;” and thus, how a “work of art” may or may not, as Kennedy recalled the term, be “canned.”    

Aura, Authority, and the Folklore Recordings of the FWP

With the rise of mechanical means of reproduction, ratios of cultural and exchange value fluctuate from the former to the latter in the work of art of 20th century modernity.  “In principle,” Walter Benjamin writes, “the work of art has always been reproducible” (252).  But what is unique about mechanical reproduction is that it “is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction” (254).  Benjamin argues that film, for example, is an art form that is created explicitly for exhibition value – that is, it is meant to be distributed and experienced by the masses.  Cult value, based on a more sacred, symbolic and ritualistic level, does not hold so well in the age of mechanical reproduction.  The work of art in light of cult value is often not seen by the masses.  It is the work’s existence that is of importance, not its accessibility by the masses.  With the rise of mechanical reproduction, cult value is effectively diminished as exhibition value becomes the means by which mechanically reproduced artwork is distributed.  It is, in short, meant to be seen, meant to be heard, and meant to be experienced.

Further, Benjamin argues, along with this rise of mechanical reproduction and exhibition value, the work of art suffers a loss of aura, the “unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (255).  Aura exists when a work of art is created temporally in a specific place and time.  The axis-coordinates of space and time during creation bring forth a temporal aura to the work of art.  Benjamin uses film as his prime example because when a movie is created, there is no singular original art object to be located in space and time.  Film, itself, is composed of multiple reels of film shot in various locations at different times.  The audience will only see a copy of the final composite film, which is itself composed of multiple films.  There is no original work of art.  The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is one that is actually designed for mass distribution and viewing; therefore, it is loaded with exhibition value. 

One of the issues at stake in Benjamin’s argument of diminishing aura is that aura also carries with it a sense of “authority,” and with authority, “tradition.”  Benjamin writes that, 

It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.  And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced. (254)

Thus, the elitism of aura and tradition is supplanted by accessibility.  Benjamin describes the importance of this accessibility by stating that “for the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual” (256, emphasis added).  With the decline of aura, the ritualistic baggage of cult value is stripped away, along with the work of art’s inherent authority and traditional context.  For Benjamin, this could be a liberating experience for the masses in that it breaks apart the elitism of cult value, but this break does not necessarily guarantee a better outcome.  

In the wake of the emerging mass exhibition of mechanically reproduced art in the late 1930s, Benjamin recognizes a general distraction from critical perspectives.  Works of art that are manufactured for distribution through exhibition value do not carry within them an inherent goodness or positive quality.  Indeed, as is often the case in his target study of film, these products can offer “a hitherto unimaginable spectacle” and can, in fact, present “a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed” (263).  In the case of the Florida FWP, however, the medium in question is not film, but rather audio recording technology.  There are important differences to be remembered when looking at the FWP’s use of audio technology in relation to the forms of mechanical reproductions Benjamin writes about in his own work.  

It is vital to recognize that the audio clips of the FWP are not composited edits, but rudimentary audio recordings taken in single sessions.  Unlike film, or more appropriately, music recordings from later in the century, these tracks are essentially one-track live recordings and not over-dubbed, edited, or remixed in any way.  But, as when comparing photographs to paintings, Benjamin argues that the recording apparatus, what Kennedy referred to as “The Thing,” still has a profound impact on the reproduction or representation of a work.  In photography, Benjamin argues that the technology “free[s] the hand from the most important artistic tasks in the process of pictorial reproduction,” ultimately accelerating the process “so that it [can] now keep pace with speech” (253).  Both Hurston and the FWP were attracted by the perceived immediacy of recorded sound and hoped the technology would allow for a greater authenticity in the recorded folk than with any collections that were made by hand.  As Hurston writes in a letter to the state director of the FWP, Carita Doggett Corse, in June of 1938, 

the difficulty in collecting [folklore] is that it is hard to set them down correctly at one sitting, and the informant usually grows self conscious if asked to sing them over and over again so that they may be set down so that one does not secure the same thing as when they are sung naturally.  The answer is a recording machine. (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters 415)

In her letter, Hurston is concerned with being able to capture authentic performances of folklore in real-time with greater accuracy, understanding that trying to record and take notes during performances may create an unnatural environment for the subjects being studied.  Perhaps, she is arguing in this letter, the microphone and recording equipment would allow the performances to be delivered naturally and without mediation.  This does not follow with Benjamin’s argument that with any form of mechanical reproduction, a performance is essentially tailored to the mechanical equipment being used to record that performance.  The technological mediation inevitably alters the so-called “natural” performance.  Still, for Hurston, the effort is to take the equipment out into the field and to try to better capture candid recordings of the subjects performing folklore in their customary environments, a far cry from the attempts at authenticity in the recordings made in the Jacksonville FWP studios.

Herbert Halpert, one of the lead interviewers in the Jacksonville studio sessions, frequently asks his subjects to act out their performance as if they were in the field. In one particular session, his “direction” becomes apparent as Halpert interviews Harold B. Hazelhurst before a performance of “John Henry” (audio stream is included at the end of each transcripted passage): 

Herbert Halpert: What’s the name of this song?

Harold B. Hazelhurst: The name of this song is “John Henry.”

Halpert: Now how did you happen to learn it?

Hazelhurst: During the time that I was a water boy, between the age of 15 and 16, on the logging camp railroad, the men during the day would sing this while they were driving spikes.

Halpert: Why were they driving spikes? Could you mark off where, how the spikes, how the hammers would be coming down?  The way they’d be coming, hitting against this? (hits table.)

Hazelhurst: Like that? (hits table.)

Halpert: Yeah, that would be good.

Hazelhurst:…Well, they’d be double-driving. (indicating that two people are needed for the properly simulated sound.)

Halpert: All right, you can double drive as long as you don’t double drive the microphone!  All right, that’s fine.  (“John Henry”)

(performance from 0:00-0:35)

Hazelhurst soon begins his rendition of “John Henry” for the microphone, hitting the table when the hammers would come down.  In this historical, contextualized version of “John Henry,” the performance is inextricably connected to the labor force that would sing it.  A railroad spiking song, “John Henry” is a work song that has developed in the working environment.  Halpert attempts to better capture this effect by having Hazelhurst hit down on the table, thus simulating the work force.  

In another recording session, we see this act of “pretending” pushed even farther.  Halpert is now interviewing H. W. Stuckey, a 43-year-old Missionary Baptist.

Stuckey: (singing)

I had a little mule and he wouldn’t go gee
I hit him in the head with the single tree
Hallo, Hallo, When you coming over?

Halpert: Let me interrupt you here.  Now, what would you call that?

Stuckey: Uh, that was a farm song made up between the boys plowing on two or more plantations where one would holler “hallo” and the other would answer with the second “hallo”.  And that would be signal for knocking off time for noon, for dinner.

Halpert: Now, wasn’t that song called a little louder than that?

Stuckey: Yes sir.

Halpert: Try to get the effect of the, of actually being out on the farm.

Stuckey: (singing, much, much louder)

This old mule is cutting the fool
I can’t get the saddle on this old mule
Hallo, Hallo, When you coming over? (“Way Down Yonder”)

(performance from 1:10-2:10)

In this recording, it is virtually impossible for Stuckey to perform this song “naturally.” Stuckey is not only interrupted mid-song by Halpert, but also given stage directions to try to simulate a “holler” typically performed by numerous individuals over great distances from multiple plantations (the “hallo, hallo” is a call/response activity).  In another Stuckey/Halpert recording, Halpert goes so far as to ask him “Will you give it again, with the same effect of being a quarter of a mile away?” (“Have You Ever Seen A Monkey”).  Ironically, in his efforts to simulate the sound of the folklore as it would be performed outdoors, Halpert is effectively shutting down the interviewed subject before the microphone, thus destroying any attempt at an “authentic” representation of the folklore being recorded.

As mentioned before, Hurston also served as an interview subject; with Hurston as a subject, however, the tone of the discourse between interviewer and interviewee is quite different.  Halpern’s interrogations and directions during the recording process do not faze Hurston, who at this point already had a long career of publications and field experience.  In “Let’s Shake It,” Hurston concludes her performance, 

Hurston: (singing)

Ah, let’s shake it (HAH!)
Ah, let’s break it (HAH!)
Ah, let’s shake it (HAH!)
Ah, just a hair (HAH!)

(speaking, “in character”)
Bring up my hammer game.

Halpert: Now look, I’d like for you to do that again.  But this time, when have those…  What do they the irons that they use for…

Hurston: They call it a lining bar.

Halpert: All right, the lining bar, when they work, don’t you hear the clink of it?

Hurston: They just say “HAH!” No, you don’t hear the lining bar because it’s under the rail and they shove the rail with it.

Halpert: Yeah, what-

Hurston: But you can’t hear it. But you hear-

Halpert: but don’t they hit against it?

Hurston: No, it’s under it, you see, it’s just like under it.  And it’s uh, it’s uh, crowbar.

Halpert: Because over in Mississippi they showed me by hitting…

(performance from 1:10-1:46)

In this selection, Halpert anticipates the folklore to be performed a particular way, as he apparently experienced a similar piece in Mississippi being performed in that other way.  In the interview process, Halpert is expecting to hear the “clink” of the steel drivers in the rendition.  From Hurston’s experience, this is not the case.  Rather than the clink of steel, the workers would give a hearty “HAH!” to set the rhythm as they worked the lining bar.  Halpert’s interviewing methods make authenticity hard to come by, as his expectations and directions become the primary motivation for the performance.  

Alan Lomax, the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Songs and son of the pioneering folklorist John Lomax, wrote to Corse, 

Sometimes an interviewist appears to interrupt the performance more often than is necessary, or to have phrased the question so that the informant was supplied with the answer thereby. In general, the objective is to get the informant to talk very freely and sometimes a few stimulating questions or remarks are better than a straight interview technique. (Library of Congress “Letter”)

Lomax was responding to Corse for Harold Spivacke, the head of the Division of Music for the Library of Congress.  Four years earlier, Lomax had joined Hurston and Mary Elisabeth Barnicle of New York University on a summer-long folklore expedition across Florida.  Lomax, still a student at the time, “was armed with a recording machine and orders to collect as many Negro folk songs as possible for the Music Division of the Library of Congress” (Boyd 275).  With Lomax’s proficiency with the recording technology and Hurston’s ability to gain comfortable acceptance in African American cultures, they traveled for two months recording folklore on the road with great success.  The summer trip of 1935 no doubt determined Hurston and Lomax’s expectations of how the recording technology should be used.  Halpert’s driving questions and attempts of simulating authenticity in performance did not meet these expectations.  

For Hurston, folklore should be recorded in the field, outside the doors of the Federal Writers’ Project’s recording studio; for in the studio, the microphone and recording equipment would always take front stage and all the participants would interact with the technology in the room, just as Benjamin’s actors would always act toward the cameras.  The authentic performance could not be staged and captured for mechanical reproduction.  It could not be “canned.”  

Locating Authenticity in Performance

Music always has been an emotional outlet for the Florida Negro, and his songs have multiplied and shaped themselves to his tasks, his tribulations, and his irrepressible spirits. (Florida: A Guide 149) 

It was well recognized by both the Florida FWP and by Hurston that African American folklore virtually radiated from the various work camps that covered the state in the late 1930s.  In Hurston’s view, these work songs were constantly in development. Masses of individuals were drawn to these work camps, people from different parts of the state and other parts of the country.  Taken together, this coming-together created a recipe of folkloric material that is not unlike a “big, old serving-platter. . . So when we speak of Florida folklore, we are talking about that Florida flavor that the story- and song-makers have given to the great mass of material that has accumulated in this sort of cultural delta” (875).  Hurston recognizes that Florida folklore is highly active and evolving, as “Florida is lush in material because the State attracts such a variety of workers to its industries” (875).  

For Hurston, this highly dialogical perspective of folklore further emphasizes her view of the performative nature of folklore.  And with that performative view of folklore, Hurston finds value in the ever-changing nature of folklore.  Each performance of folklore is inextricably bound to the environment from which it is performed.  Further, it is a social activity that largely erases the line between audience and performer.   If we are to find a “work” in folklore, it is not in any object, text, or score.  It is essentially in the performance.  As we will see, the Florida FWP had difficulties viewing folklore and folk music in this light.  Again, through the work of Walter Benjamin we can further illuminate this conflict and bring the opposing ideologies to light.

Of the most frequently asked questions during the Florida FWP interview sessions, four specific questions stand out: What is your name, How old are you, Were you born in Florida, and Have you lived your whole life in Florida?  Though I am certainly not arguing that these are inherently bad questions, the issue of geographical location (“have you lived your whole life in Florida?”) seems vital and of great importance for the FWP.  Most interestingly, the FWP interviewers often seem disquieted when their interview subjects would not be able to give them an exact title, consistent lyrics or even an isolated source for a given song. 

Halpert: Now, this is “John…”  You were telling me that “John Henry” wasn’t sung the same way always?  I mean, it wouldn’t begin…?

Hazelhurst: No, it wouldn’t begin at the same place all the time.  Sometimes it would begin when he was only six months old, or perhaps they would begin by “John Henry, he had a little woman”.

Halpert: Well now tell me, uh, did they always have the same tune to it?

Hazelhurst: Oh yes, they had the same tune, all the time, but different wording, you know, they would make up words all the time.

Halpert: Alright.

Hazelhurst: See, the fellas from different railroads would come and work on this track with us.  And each fella, perhaps he’d have a new verse that he’d add to the song.

Halpert: Well, good.  Well now, let’s hear the way you remember it… (“John Henry.”)

(performance from 0:37-1:16)

In this case, Harold Hazelhurst claims that the music and title are consistent, but the lyrical content is constantly in flux.  The various members, or “fella”s of the railroad work camps would simply add a new verse to the song.  “John Henry” was, indeed, one of the most popular “work songs” for African American laborers in the South during the early 20th century, featuring innumerable variations of the lyrics and often carrying related, but distinctly different melodies.  Much time and effort has been spent trying to isolate a source of “John Henry,” but to no avail.  Hazelhurst later clarified to Halpert during the “Stewboy” interview, “all of these songs that I’m singing, they didn’t have no particular title.  We’d just begin singing them as the feelings would come on.”

Hurston, herself, was less than helpful to the FWP’s attempt at pinpointing sources and authors of the folklore.  Before her performance of “Halimuhfack,” Halpert asks Hurston where and from whom she learned the song.  “I heard Halimuhfack down on the, uh, East Coast . . . I don’t remember.  I was in a big crowd and I learned it in the evening during the crowd and I’m just…  don’t care to exactly remember who I…  Who did teach it to me, but I learned it from the crowd mostly.”  Hurston then immediately launches into a performance of “Halimuhfack.”  Immediately at the end of her performance, Halpert cuts in,

Halpert: You said you, uh, learned it in a crowd.  How do you learn most of your songs?

Hurston: I learn ‘em, I just get in the crowd with the people and they’re singin’ and 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 a verse, and then I keep on until I learn all the songs, or all the verses, and then I sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing it just like them then I take part and try it out on different people who already know the song until they are quite satisfied that I know it.  Then I carry it in my memory.

Halpert: Well, how about those that you have in your books and published in the journals?

Hurston: Well, that’s the same way I got them.  I learned the song myself.  

(performance from 1:24-2:04)

For Hurston, participation and interaction are the preferred means of learning folklore.  As I argue in Chapter One, she is willing to forfeit the modernist notion of attempting purely objective ethnographic studies.  As folklore is essentially a cultural activity of call and response, the best way to “collect” the material is to learn and participate with the material.  This is clearly disturbing to Halpert.  By asking if Hurston also collects folklore in this manner of participation for her publications, the difference between their two ideologies is again revealed.  For Halpert, folklore should be collected like objects from a field.  For Hurston, folklore cannot be isolated and collected as an object.  It can only be acted out and represented through performance.  

Hurston recognizes in these interview sessions that which Benjamin would call the aura of folklore exists in its very performance.  She is not so concerned with the singular root or even the singular text of a folk song, but rather with the ways in which folklore is created through performance.  Although the FWP does recognize the transitory nature of workers and cultures during this period of history, they are still trying to capture, can, and catalogue individual works of folklore as singular texts.  The very recording of these performances in the Jacksonville studios eliminates any chance of true folk performance. 

The question may be asked, however, that if folklore exists in performance, then why can the studio performances not be considered authentic folkloric representations?  The answer would seem to be that for Hurston, folklore is social and cultural, dialogical and performative.  In the Jacksonville studios, performers are asked to simulate folkloric performances in light of geographical issues and technical accuracy.  The FWP interviewers speak to the performers with the recording in mind.  The performers then respond to the microphone, to the project of classifying and canning folklore.  At no point does the folklore itself become dialogically rooted in call and response.  The very execution of the interviews in the studios negates the possibility of the aura of the folklore from emerging.  Therefore, ironically, the performances never carry the authority and the tradition of the very folklore they were trying to collect.

Performance Value

When treating folklore as a “work of art” we should remember that there is an underlying fundamental assumption at play, which is that the “work of art” is indeed something that can be objectified and then closely scrutinized.  It is to assume that the work of art is something that can be canned, preserved, and dissected.  Through means of technological reproduction, Benjamin argues, the work of art undergoes a massive shift from functioning under a cult, or ritual, value to that of working under an exhibition value.  It shifts from a symbolic value of existence to an economic value of distribution.  Through this change from manual re/production to technological reproduction, Benjamin also argues that the work of art essentially loses its aura, its uniqueness in time and space.  Finally, with the destruction of aura, the work of art also loses its authority and hold on tradition.  

The Florida Federal Writers Project clearly viewed folklore as something that could be captured, something that could be copied, studied, analyzed and contained.  Through the course of its run, however, the FWP’s perceptions of folklore as “works” was greatly challenged, not only by Hurston herself, but also by many of the FWP’s interview participants.  As the FWP was never able to trace and find a root to a particular performance, they never found “the work of art” or the original folkloric source.  As a result of this, one can argue that in the eyes of the FWP coupled with Benjamin, the folklore never did lose its aura during the process of mechanical reproduction onto acetate disks, for it was never there to begin with.  They could never find the “work of art” to “can”, as all they could do was capture performances and interviews outside of the folkloric environment.  

As we well know, Hurston saw folklore through the lens of performance.  Given that folklore was dialogical and social in her eyes, she would see the aura of folklore in every performance she interacted with.  With that aura, Hurston clearly saw the authority and tradition that comes with it.  But as folklore is performative, there is no unifying text beneath the performance.  There is no object and thus no “work of art” in the concrete sense.  No singular root can be identified; no single source can be isolated.  Further, folklore never finishes.  It is, she argues, “still in the making.  Folk tunes, tales, and characters are still emerging from the lush glades of primitive imagination” (“Folklore and Music” 875).  Hurston goes on to state that the death of folklore will only happen when the live performance of it stops, when it is “finally drained by formal education and mechanical inventions” (875).  

Folklore, for Hurston, has its own unique mixture of both cult and exhibition values.  Its cult value lies in the fact that it is ritualistic and carries tradition.  But, that cult value is utterly inseparable from folklore’s own breed of exhibition value.  If it is not performed and shared through the masses, folklore ceases to exist and becomes a phantom without a trace, for it can never be truly reproduced in an objective form to be preserved.  It lives, simply, in performance.   Whereas Hurston sought to record the experience of folklore through narrative and the Speakerly Text, the FWP was concerned with simply canning folklore as an object in order to study and preserve it.  

“Thinking of the beginnings of things in a general way,” Hurston writes, 

it could be said that folklore is the first thing that man makes out of the natural laws that he finds around him . . . The group mind uses up a great part of its life-span trying to ask infinity some questions about what is going on around its doorsteps . . . And the more that the group knows about its own doorstep, the more it can bend and control what it sees there, the more civilized we say it is.  For what we call civilization is an accumulation of recognitions and regulations of the common place.  How many natural laws of things have been recognized, classified, and utilized by these people?  That is the question that is being asked in reality when the ‘progress’ of a locality is being studied. (“Folklore and Music” 876)

Hurston sought to capture the experience of living in numerous cultures in this time.  For her, the aura of the performative folklore is one of the purest expressions of human living in the world.  Folklore is “the boiled-down juice of human living” (“Folklore and Music” 875).  It is constantly in motion and only manifests in performance.  By its dialogical nature, folklore is dependent on human interaction and resists any form of monological representation, as that is completely antithetical to its own function.  “In a long range view,” Hurston writes, “art is the setting up of monuments to the ordinary things about us, in a moment and in time,” but “folklore is the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art, and they make it out of whatever they find at hand” (“Folklore and Music” 876).  In work, at play, Hurston’s folklore exists in the one constant of human culture: in the aura of human interaction, in the space and time of the performative.

Chapter Three:
Canning Geography and Zora Neale Hurston

Eatonville’s Spatial Politics and the Cult of Celebrity

Objectifying the Folk and Second Nature

As we have seen, Zora Neale Hurston’s emphasis on the performative nature of folklore and its aura of performance was not easily digested by the Florida Federal Writers’ Project and its editors.  The primary conflict is Hurston’s refusal to accept folkloric texts as objects or finished “works,” as things that can be canned, broken down, and absolutely categorized.  Folklore, for Hurston, refuses and resists objectification, and ultimately, commodification as packaged products.  This is contradictory to the FWP’s use of folklore in Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. In that particular text, folklore is utilized to decorate the regions of Florida, being marketed to the ever-increasing number of transient tourists from elsewhere in the country.  If folklore is viewed as highly dialogical and performative in nature, it is nearly impossible to successfully objectify and market it.  The FWP had to, out of necessity, objectify the folk. 

In this chapter I first address issues of folklore, technology, and geography through Georg Lukács’ theories of first and second nature alongside Walter Benjamin’s model of aura.  By looking at issues of geography and technology coupled with developments in transportation, I will examine the spatial politics of the Eatonville of Hurston’s youth, both through her eyes and those of the editors and writers of the FWP.  Next, I will look at the folkloric character of John Henry as a dialogic manifestation of the working class folk performers recognizing and addressing the emergent technologies reshaping and affecting not only their economic stability, but also the shape of the land around them.  Finally, I will look at contemporary issues of the folk, geography, and commodification in the Eatonville of today, with special consideration of the Zora Neale Hurston festivals of the past fourteen years.

To begin, we will first look to Georg Lukács and issues of first and second nature to better understand issues of aura and temporality in the context of technology and “things.”   “The nature of man-made structures,” Lukács argues, are rigidly bound in “the content of the second nature, precipitated by its own laws” (Theory of the Novel 190-191).  That is to say, the relics of the past, the things people have made, the “charnel-house of long-dead interiorities” (191), should be static and dead, soulless and inanimate.  Only the “souls which, in early or ideal existence, created or preserved it” can animate this second nature.  The modern human is trapped in this prison of second nature, cut off from the first nature, in the world before man-made objects.  Our views of the world are seen only through the lens of the second nature, through technologies and “things.”  As in Nietzsche’s process of dissimulation, humans are cut off from the essence of things, accepting the second nature as the first, only able to see “the surface of things” through metaphors of metaphors of ideas and accepting those metaphors as authentic and primary, as truth itself (“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” 875).  With the rise of mechanical reproduction and the industrial revolution, American culture created more and more “things” that occupied the geophysical landscape of the country.  Ever increasingly so, these things of the second nature became our primary frame of reference when looking at the world around us.     

Walter Benjamin, as Susan Buck-Morss explains in her book The Dialectics of Seeing, saw “material nature” as “‘other’ than the subject, and this remained true no matter how much labor had been invested in it” (70). For Benjamin, “the paradox was that predicates usually attributed to the old, organic nature – productivity and transitoriness as well as decay and extinction – when used to describe the inorganic ‘new nature’ that was the product of industrialism, named precisely what was new about it” (70).  The world of the industrial revolution, for Benjamin, was a “truly new configuration of nature – and, at bottom, technology is just a configuration” (Arcades Project 390).  That is to say, with emerging technologies and models of transportation, the world and the way we see it was reconfigured, but it is a new configuration based on an older one.  We could say here that the second nature is simply a reconfiguration of the first; however, it is a new configuration in history.  For each of these configurations, “there corresponds new ‘images’” (Arcades 390).  Benjamin often recognizes how culture reacts dynamically to revolutions in industry and technology.  Further, history, rather than being handed down through the ages, is created in the present.  It “[history] is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History” 261).  The rise in industrially manufactured second nature was accompanied (and in many ways perpetuated) by the remarkable developments of transportation throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.  From the railroad through the automotive vehicle, perceptions of space and time were drastically altered.  Any two given regions that were once considered remote – that is, geographically and temporally isolated from each other – were easily accessible through industrial transportation. The railroad at this time was most certainly a major source for connecting Florida to the rest of the country and a major center for economic revenue.

With the end of what Stephen Kern calls “the sanctuary of remoteness” (213), the very nature of community and tradition altered drastically.  Florida, a growing state of industry, was a land of immigrants – of people looking for employment (African Americans), as well as tourists on vacation (Anglo Americans).  Florida was, to put it simply, a remote region of people from other regions, for both labor and for recreation.  “The remote regions,” Walter Schivelbush writes about the English countryside impacted by the railroads, “were made available to the masses by means of tourism:  this was merely a prelude, a preparation for making any unique thing available by means of reproduction” (42).  Applying Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura (in terms of temporality) to tourism and the railroad, Schivelbusch looks at how a location’s unique spatial existence in space and time is diminished with mechanized travel.  Benjamin, as cited by Schivelbusch, writes that “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly . . . is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (42).  Essentially, a networked location loses its aura when connected to the railroad.  But, “the railroad knows only points of departure and destination” (38).  The specific places that lose aura are the places that have railroad depots.  When considering the Eatonville of Hurston’s youth, we should be reminded that it did not have a railroad depot.  It was, however, a location bound near the roads and between points of departure.  

Mobility in the Eatonville of Hurston’s Youth

The Eatonville of Hurston’s childhood was also being changed by these technological developments in transportation and modernity. More specifically, however, it was being changed by the development of larger, urban regions near the town.  Orlando, a few miles south of Eatonville, was bustling and quickly developing into a metropolitan center at this time.  Rail lines and automobile roads began to cut through the area.  Footpaths had given way to carriage paths.  These carriage paths, in turn, gave way to shell roads and, in some cases, railroad lines.  As a child, Hurston watched people traveling through and around Eatonville.  In her autobiography she explains how she  

used to take a seat on top of the gate post and watch the world go by.  One way to Orlando ran past my house, so the carriages and cars would pass before me.  The movement made me glad to see it.  Often the white travelers would hail me, but more often I hailed them, and asked, “Don’t you want me to go a piece of the way with you?” (Dust Tracks on a Road 589.)

For the young Hurston, these travelers and passersby represent adventure, invoking in her the fantastic anywhere-but-here so many people dream about in their childhood.  This shell road through Eatonville significantly impacted Hurston. It is also important to remember that Hurston, herself, was born in Notasulga, Alabama.  Her family moved to the newly-incorporated Eatonville when she was a very small child.  Regardless, Eatonville was her center, and the road pointed to ways out – to the rest of the world.  

Hurston fictionalizes her early experiences of observing mechanical transportation in “Drenched in Light”.  Isis Watts, the jubilant, charismatic, and young main character of her story, is very much an autobiographically based character of Hurston.  Of Watts, Hurston writes, 

…nothing pleased her so much as to sit atop of the gate post and hail the passing vehicles on their way South to Orlando, or North to Sanford.  That white shell road was her great attraction. She raced up and down the stretch of it that lay before her gate like a round eyed puppy hailing gleefully all travelers.  Everybody in the country, white and colored, knew little Isis Watts, the joyful. (940)

On occasion travelers would let Hurston (and her literary representation, Isis Watts) hop a ride.  However these rides were, for the most part, quite short.  Hurston remained, as a little girl in Eatonville, dreaming of the horizon and the geographic elsewhere.  Eatonville is, in this perspective, stuck in the middle, neither Sanford nor Orlando, but a point on the line between the two. But rather than simply being a road to elsewhere, the road itself manifested as a “great attraction,” a thing that represented travel, distance, and the “not here.”  And, with carriages or automobiles, Hurston could still relatively interact with the travelers.  As we shall see, however, interaction with travelers isn’t possible with the railroad.

In the fifth section of “The Eatonville Anthology,” Hurston tells the story of Old Man Anderson, a fellow who lives “seven or eight miles out in the country from Eatonville” (815).  Hurston explains how Anderson

was different from us citybred folks.  He had never seen a train.  Everybody laughed at him for even the smallest child in Eatonville had either been to Maitland or Orlando and watched a train go by.  On Sunday afternoons all of the young people of the village would go over to Maitland, a mile away, to see Number 35 whizz southward on its way to Tampa and wave at the passengers. (815)

Old Man Anderson is eventually convinced he should see one of these technological marvels.  Dragging his horse and wagon out to the tracks, he waits for a passing train.  Worried about the fire and steam he’d been told about, Old Man Anderson is frightened to the point of fleeing when he hears the monstrous train nearing the bend:  “He doesn’t know yet what a train looks like, and says he doesn’t care” (816).

Old Man Anderson may represent the elder, rural community, but he certainly doesn’t represent the younger Eatonville folk.  To Eatonville’s youth, Old Man Anderson is something of a joke, a relic left out in the woods, unable to appreciate and understand the technology of the railroad, much less modernity itself.  Anderson is unable to see the train, moving through and by the land, as a symbol of progress. Our main concern here is that the emphasis remains on the perspective of watching the train tear through the landscape.  The young people wave at the passing trains, carrying ticket-holding passengers to Tampa or some other location; but they themselves are not passengers. Space and time are collapsed for those who are actually riding the train, not necessarily for those standing by watching the train pass.  Though the trains, as well as the passing automobiles, become metaphorical representations for progress and modernity, the youth of Eatonville are not experiencing this perceived shrinkage of space of time immediately.  They do, however, assign it value as a symbol of modernity.  The train, seen as a symbolic representation of second nature, tears through the landscape, cuts through space and time, but passes by Eatonville’s youth.  Old Man Anderson, rural and of the lower class, cannot accept this grand symbolism of progress and technology; therefore, he is considered outdated and as a personified relic.  He cannot see the grandeur in the passing behemoth run on steam.  Neither the youth watching the train pass by nor Old Man Anderson are, at this point, experiencing the extreme effects of second nature when combined with the destruction of geographic aura through motorized transportation.  Though the automobile was growing more and more prevalent, the railroad still remained the grand metaphor at this time. Issues of temporality and the railroad industry were not only central in the African American labor force’s employment, but also recognized dramatically in the folklore of the time. 

The Florida Railroad

With rapid advancements of transportation technologies and the perceived shrinking of time and space for passengers, the development and evolution of folklore exploded. As more and more people traveled, they were introduced to more and more “stocks” of folklore – and this folklore developed and changed more rapidly.  Hurston recognized the value of these performances and the intense concentrations of folklore found in the African American labor camps across the state.  It is important to consider the significant impact of the railroad upon Florida’s labor force when considering Hurston and Florida folklore of this time.  In fact, the labor force that created these very rails was predominantly composed of African American males.  From turpentine mills to railroad lines and up through the citrus groves of the region, folklore radiated from the various work forces.  In addition, we can see that the folklore is clearly influenced by the very technological factors changing and altering the working conditions and livelihood of its workforce.

For Leo Marx, the railroad works as a strong symbol of power in the Industrial Age. “The locomotive is a perfect symbol,” Marx argues,

because its meaning need not be attached to it by a poet; it is inherent in its physical attributes.  To see a powerful, efficient machine in the landscape is to know the superiority of the present to the past.  If the landscape happens to be wild or uncultivated, and if the observer is a man who knows what it means to live by physical labor, the effect will be even more dramatic and the meaning more obvious. (The Machine in the Garden 192)

A sign of progress, the railroad cuts through the landscape and functions not only as a means of transportation, but also as a mark of modernity, a mark of progress.  The working man, for Marx, should be especially aware of this symbol.  

As Hurston writes in “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” the railroad and characters surrounding it often inhabit African American folklore of the period.  Henry Ford, the railroad tycoon, makes appearances, along with the East Coast Railway.  The railroad camps were a major source for Hurston and the FWP to collect folklore, as the folk cultures in these work camps were remarkably diverse in population and thereby rich with material.  In these folkloric works, we see evidence of the participants reacting to the environment of the post-Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism.  Hurston writes:

Polk County.  The clang of nine-pound hammers on railroad steel.  The world must ride.

Hah!  A rhythmic swing of the body, hammer falls, and another spike is driven to the head in the tie.

Oh, Mobile! Hank!
Oh, Alabama!  Hank!
Oh, Fort Myers! Hank!
Oh, in Florida!  Hank!
Oh, let’s shake it!  Hank!
Oh, let’s break it!  Hank!
Oh, let’s shake it!  Hank!
Oh, just a hair!  Hank!

. . . Another rail spiked down.  Another offering to the soul of civilization whose other name is travel (Dust Tracks on a Road 691).

“Let’s Shake It,” a railroad spiking song, is reported by Hurston to be sung during the act of work.  It is another African American folk song, or as Hurston says, a “chant for lining the rail,” (“Let’s Shake It”) that is in development and reactionary to the environment – in this case, the working environment.  The mention of Mobile, Alabama and Fort Myers, Florida shows the actual connecting of two places in space by the railroad.  Each rail is yet “another offering to the soul of civilization whose other name is travel” (Dust Tracks on a Road 691).  The railroad, as a symbol of second nature, is being politicized in the rhythm of lining track.  It is being incorporated into the folk culture of African American laborers because it is a reality in the lives of the very same working-class population working to build it.  Further, this song and others like it are being created and performed on the tracks, mainly between the terminals (somewhere between Fort Myers and Mobile, for example).  For Hurston, it is the time and effort of the working class African Americans being sacrificed (“another offering”) in the name of travel and tourism (the “soul of civilization”). 

It is important to remember that those who primarily benefited from the completed railroads were producers able to set up shop at the terminals and consumers able to purchase tickets in order to ride the lines.  The vast majority of laborers working the lines did not benefit from this form of progress, except in terms of their modest earnings.  Further, with the continuing development of steam technology, even the labor itself began to decline.  With the rise of the steam drill, fewer and fewer line-railers were needed on the tracks.  As the influence of technology continued to rise in both transportation and production, working-class African Americans became more disenfranchised from the economic system.  With this in mind, it is worth exploring the case of “John Henry,” a popular African American folk song that pits worker against machine.

Hurston describes “John Henry” as “not a very old song, being younger by far than Casey Jones and like that song being the celebration of an incidence of bravery” (Mules and Men 230).  The story of a railway steel-driver who dies in competition with a steam drill, “John Henry” is one of the most common of African American folksongs and tales.  Hurston notes in Mules and Men how it is told through direct dialogue and that there are lyrical connections to English ballads.  Further, to stress the “newness” of the song, she notes “the fact that he is competing with something as recent as a steam drill” (Mules and Men 230).  “John Henry,” as a lining-rhythm song, illuminates the awareness of technological developments replacing the African American labor force on the railways.  The fact that John’s last name is Henry is interesting, given the nickname of trains (“high Henry’s”) and the two dominant developers of the railway industry at the turn of the century, Henry Flagler and Henry Plant.  In the various incarnations of the song, John Henry essentially goes to war against the steam drill:

John Henry driving on the right hand side,
Steam drill driving on the left,
Says, ‘fore I’ll let your steam drill beat me down
I’ll hammer my fool self to death,
Hammer my fool self to death. (233)

“John Henry” was sung in mass while the workers were lining track, hammering and spiking the spreading railroad.  Working in real-time, they were constantly aware of the impending drill that would replace their hands with the very power that had powered the trains in the first place:  steam.  John Henry is the symbolic warrior against technology, who lives only in the sweat of men lining track and in the moments of their labor.  John Henry loses the battle to the steam drill, ultimately sacrificing his own life.  So too was the labor industry of African American line-workers losing the battle on the Florida railroads to mechanization and the steam drill.

Charles Johnson claims that 73% of African Americans working in the railroad system were in the South, and 72% of them worked the railroads as laborers on the tracks.  Johnson further explains that “since 1925, mechanization in the railroad industry has been increasing at a very rapid rate.  Labor-saving devices have been more readily used in the lower grades of work.”  In addition, short line railroads were the primary employers of African American labor at this time.  The rise of the automobile further stressed the African American laborers working on the rails, as the automobile began to take away the work of the short line railroads (6-12).

Railroad work was becoming scarce.  But the tracks remained – the very tracks laid by the hands of the African American labor force, the very tracks laid by the rhythm of African American folk music and tall tales.  In Florida, the railroad ushered in masses of tourists, increased produce and the commercial trade of citrus, phosphate, and turpentine while the songs of “John Henry” were replaced with the whirrs of the steam drill.  In Hurston’s “John Henry,” we can clearly see the African American labor force politically reacting to their surrounding environment within their folklore.  The struggle with technology takes soul and heart in the struggle of John Henry.  Throughout the different variations of the song, the only constant is Henry’s ultimate victory over the steam drill and his consequent demise.

By examining the railroad and the automotive industry that followed, we can see how the geography of Florida and the perceptions of time and space were altered by emergent technologies of transportation. At the heart of these developments lies the machine of commerce.  In short, all these technological connections and investments were made to build a better Florida in terms of economic gain. Further, in addition to agricultural production, tourism and recreation quickly grew as a prime source of economic gain for the state.  In order for this to work, the means of transportation had to be available and the cultural geography of Florida itself had to be reconfigured. The technological advances in transportation, however, were not the only means by which Florida was increasingly reconfigured for tourism and industry.   We can see this reconfiguration of space, time and culture once again in the Florida Federal Writers’ Project’s publications of the late 1930s.

Establishing Geographical Aura with the FWP

Maitland is Maitland until it gets to Hurst’s corner, and then it is Eatonville.  Right in front of Willie Sewell’s yellow-painted house the hard road quits being the hard road for a generous mile and becomes the heart of Eatonville.  Or from a stranger’s point of view, you could say that the road just bursts through on its way from US 17 to US 441, scattering Eatonville right and left (Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State 362).

In Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, Eatonville is presented in a subsection to its neighbor, Maitland. The entry details Eatonville geographically, as though one were walking or driving through it.  Much of the “walk-through” of Eatonville is presented through Hurston’s voice, and she is referred to externally, being “cited” in the text itself.  The entry for Eatonville begins with technical specifications regarding its history and location.  The entry then transitions into Hurston’s cited piece, which engages the reader directly:  “On the right, after you leave the Sewell place, you don’t meet a thing that people live in until you come to the Green Lantern on the main corner” (362). Hurston’s voice is literally walking the reader through Eatonville, as though the reader were traveling through the town.  Hurston’s cited selection ends with local lore: 

They call the tree-shaded land that runs past the schoolhouse West street, and it goes past several small groves until it passes Jim Steele’s fine orange grove and dips itself in Lake Belle, which is the home of Eatonville’s most celebrated resident, the world’s largest alligator. (362)

Hurston’s identified section is interrupted and is further explained by the collective FWP authorship:   

This legendary alligator, it is said, is no other than a slave who escaped from a Georgia plantation and joined the Indians during the Seminole War . . . Now and then he resumes human form, so people say, and roams the country about Eatonville.  At such times all the alligators in the surrounding lakes bellow loudly all night long.  ‘The big one has gone back home,’ whisper the villagers. (362)

This former slave was also a “celebrated conjure man in Africa” (362).  The Eatonville entry in Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State includes a folkloric description and explanation of the alligator’s mating bellow calls as a runaway slave who had joined the Seminole Indians and was himself a former conjure man from Africa.  This must have seemed quite thrilling to the tourist reading about Eatonville in advance!  The alligator and his respective folklore stories are condensed into a side-note ornament for the passing tourist.  

One primary difference between the presentation and deployment of this particular folkloric bit is perspective.  Stories like this are typically presented through the act of conversation by “characters” in Hurston’s published texts.  In addition, there is almost always a context of ribbing and competition at play when these stories are being told.  In the FWP project, the story is being told rather directly and monologically, as a point of fact of what others say.  The others, of course, in this case are the citizens of Eatonville.  Eatonville is geographically and historically contextualized and isolated for the passing motorist and tourist and a little slice of folklore is added just to spice up the entry in the FWP guidebook, as is often the case in guidebooks aimed at tourists and motorists.  This is certainly a very narrow and limited presentation of Eatonville and expectedly so.  After all, a passenger or driver in a car can rarely do more than point and nod while driving through a town.  In short, Eatonville is being commodified for the tourist as a place to travel through, as a location with a little bit of spice.

In a sense, the FWP was trying to establish a new aura with each of the locations it was marketing in the Florida guide.  Hurston often spoke of stocks of folklore being spiced by regional influences through the act of performance.  The aura of folklore can be seen in the intricate blends of people interacting and performing folklore around each other.  It was a call and response system of dialogic action.  The folklore was not static, but rather constantly shifting and changing in time and space.  But what use is this kind of dialogic folklore for the passing motorist?  The passing tourist did not typically have the opportunity to participate in this kind of folklore and culture.  The FWP, in order to market Eatonville and all of the cities referenced in the guide, had to add aura to each location.  The FWP had to imbue these regions with a surrogate aura in order to give the tourists not only an interesting context to these locations as they were passing through, but also stories to tell when they returned home.  

Exploring surrogate auras in the wake of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin writes

Film responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the ‘personality’ outside the studio.  The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character. (“Work of Art” 261)

Benjamin argues that the “cult of celebrity” is a substitution for lost aura by the institution of Hollywood.  By building up the personalities of the movie stars and celebrities Hollywood is able to compensate for aura lost through means of mechanical reproduction.  Further, he writes, “the illusory nature of film is of the second degree; it is the result of editing.”  For Benjamin, the altered and edited montage of motion pictures creates a spectacle that obliterates a solid perspective and is always framed, so to speak, through the lens of technology.  That is to say, again, it destroys a unique perspective grounded in space and time.  Further, he writes, the “magician is to surgeon as painter is to cinematographer.”  By this, Benjamin is noting how “the painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, whereas the cinematographer penetrates deeply into its tissue.  The cinematographer sees parts that can be assembled into a whole, whereas the painter sees a “total image” (“Work of Art” 263). 

We can think of the FWP’s presentation of folklore in Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State as a way of building up “cult of celebrity” for these locations.  By taking bits and pieces of folk and history and shaping a narrative for the passing tourist, the FWP was creating an illusory perception of locations quite literally “edited” and “objectified” bits of folklore.  In this sense, the folklore is not only objectified, but also deployed as man-made things, or, as second nature. This use of folklore and history is not limited to the FWP and the Florida guidebook.  In fact, as we will see, Eatonville has become a kind of commodified thing in and of itself through the cult of celebrity, specifically of Hurston herself.

Eatonville and Geographical Aura Today

In an attempt to situate folklore geographically for travelers of downtown Orlando, students and faculty at The University of Central Florida developed a program entitled Cultural Byways on the Information Highway. The goal is to “place local folklore and history on new, high-resolution video and audio equipment within the downtown Orlando bus system” (“Cultural Byways”). With monitor displays and speakers wired in the buses,

at certain fixed locations the bus computer is loaded via a wireless Internet with history and folklore segments.  These segments are then called up by a GPS system attached to the computer and played as the bus travels.  Between stops, the video screens, linked to wireless Internet and satellite links (or the Global Positioning System, referred to as GPS), are filled with stories, facts, and information related to the places that the bus passes. (“Cultural Byways”.)

This high-tech program is seeking to expose tourists and locals alike to Orlando’s cultural and folkloric heritage.  This program can be seen as a technologically advanced reworking of Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State.  Travelers can listen and watch videos from within the bus while outside the geographical subjects, or locations, pass by.  Again, the folklore is isolated and defined, as well as recorded.  It is static and dead, being consumed by the passersby and resistant to participation. Instead, the system is quite literally decorating and contextualizing the geography outside the moving vehicle.  Orlando, now inseparable from Disney World, is presented not only as the home of innumerable tourist attractions (“theme parks”), but also as a city with a rich and long cultural history and heritage.  Though this may be educational and informative, one must question the idea of folklore being presented this way, especially when considering Hurston’s views on folklore and performance.  Whereas her efforts to represent the folk were highly dialogic, we can’t help but see the one-sided monologism of these recordings.  Once again, we see “the folk” attempting to be canned and packaged, as though they were a thing of the past or a relic.  When considering how folklore would continue to develop, Hurston speculates that it will continue to emerge until it is “finally drained by formal education and mechanical inventions” (“Folklore and Music” 875). By objectifying folklore as monological relics of the past, as things of a second nature, we further remove ourselves from the dialogic interaction of the folklore Hurston valued and studied, the folklore of the present.

Turning our eyes back to Eatonville, we will find a similar and perhaps unexpected subjugation of the folk to objectification and commodification, but for very different means.  As Orlando exploded to the south, Eatonville grew modestly throughout the twentieth century, along with all the other towns and cities in the region.  In 1960, however, the construction of I-4 (which runs from Tampa through Orlando and up to Daytona) quite literally cut the town in half. Further, Eatonville was not given an access ramp to I-4.  A few years later, in 1967, the town was again hard-hit.  The Orange County Public School district downgraded Eatonville’s high school to a vocational school and opted to shuttle Eatonville’s students elsewhere (Nathiri “Heritage” 2). Walt Disney World opened to the public in 1971, and Orlando’s development exploded.  As Orlando continued its expansion, Eatonville’s identity was compromised when the Orange County Board of County Commission passed a movement to reconstruct Eatonville’s main street, Kennedy, from a two-lane road to a five-lane road (Nathiri, Zora! 4).  Though the people in the area might have benefited from this expansion economically, any trace of Eatonville would have been all but wiped out.  Eatonville most likely would have been consumed by one of the larger, bordering municipalities.

Also in 1987, the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (PEC) was founded.  The Association’s Mission Statements explains its function is

to enhance the considerable cultural resources of Eatonville, Florida, which is ‘the oldest incorporated African American municipality in the United States’ and the hometown of writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston; to educate the public about Eatonville’s historic and cultural significance; and to use the community’s heritage and cultural vibrancy for its economic development.

The PEC is a movement to preserve the community of Eatonville in light of the economic and geographic difficulties and challenges it has endured in the past few decades.  Most importantly for the town, the PEC created the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts, an annual festival held within Eatonville.  The first Hurston Festival took place in 1990 and it continues to run annually.  As stated by Nathiri, the three objectives of the festival are:

    • to celebrate the life and work of Hurston;
    • to celebrate the historical significance of Eatonville;
    • to celebrate the cultural contributions African-descended persons have made to the United States and to world culture. (“Heritage” 8.)

The Hurston Festival, which now lasts for about a week, with the most activity taking place during the closing weekend, is a mixture of stage performances, art vendors and their works, book signings, food sales, lectures, forums and so on. For most of the public, however, the festival takes place on the grounds of the Robert Hungerford Preparatory High School and Kennedy Boulevard, Eatonville’s main street.  On these grounds, performers rotate through the mainstage, artists show and sell their work, and vendors cook and sell food. During this past year’s festival (2005), Maya Angelou signed copies of her work in the Hungerford gymnasium, and Isaac Hayes headlined the main stage.  It is, on the surface, what one would expect from a weekend festival held in a small community.  However, when we take a closer look at the festival, we can see issues of geography and aura surface in light of the arguments being made in this writing.

When visitors first walk the festival grounds they pass by a giant hat and a sign that reads “Welcome to Zora’s Village”.  Once inside, the geography of the festival grounds is marked by “streets” with accompanying street signs.  These streets and their signs make references to Eatonville (Eatonville Ave, St. Lawrence Ln, Joe’s Cul-De-Sac), Hurston herself (Zora Boulevard), Hurston’s literary works (Spunk St, Dusty Blvd), and finally, Hurston’s characters (Tea-Cake Pkwy). During the Hurston Festival, all of Hurston’s literary and biographical landmarks merge into one system of geographical organization of the grounds.  In this case, Eatonville, Hurston, and her literary works become one and the same thing; or, at least, inseparable.  

We can look at Eatonville as presented in the Hurston festival as being structured through a cult of celebrity surrounding the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston.  For many outsiders, this is the historical context by which they know Eatonville.  Hurston’s legacy and literary works have become the second nature applied to Eatonville itself, in an attempt to keep the geographical presence of Eatonville stable beneath the girth of the ever-growing city of Orlando. The first nature presence of people living, working and loving (as Hurston would say) in real time and real space is not enough to keep Eatonville functional and structured today.  The Hurston Festival has helped to keep Eatonville on the map (geographic, cultural, and economic) for fourteen years through the use of Hurston’s status in literary and ethnographic history; or, to be more general, through her celebrity.  According the Festival’s website, the event attracts more than 30,000 attendees a year to Eatonville


We can see that Eatonville is no longer sitting a mile from the tracks.  Somewhat removed from easy access to the mainstreams of Orlando transit (including I-4), Eatonville has been able to maintain a geographical independence of sorts.  But this independence has come with a terrible economic cost.  Ironically, much of what keeps the town moving afloat at this point is the Hurston Festival itself, which brings in a massive number of tourists each year.  These tourists come from all across the state of Florida as well as from across the nation.  In essence, Eatonville now lies at the end of the tracks and is able to benefit from the technologies of transportation and transit.  Rather than standing idly by and watching the train carry others to Tampa or Orlando, tens of thousands of people come to Eatonville each year to get a taste of Zora Neale Hurston.  It is, after all, Hurston’s literary representations of Eatonville that draw them there.  In a dramatic reversal, the textual representations of Eatonville have become the primary frames through which travelers, tourists and sojourners view Eatonville as a location.  Hurston is the spice that flavors the town.  And it is that spice that fiscally helps support Eatonville through today.

At the same time, however, we must remember that the citizens of Eatonville see a different Eatonville.  After all, when tourists arrive at the Hurston festival fresh from transit, they are presented with a geography created particularly for that annual event.  If one truly wanted to know what Eatonville is “like”, one would have to be a part of the community, outside of the Hurston Festival itself.  One would have to participate with the culture, as Hurston did.  Even then, however, one may still be considered an outsider working their way in.  When attending the Hurston Festival, one is confronted with a  hyper-mediated, self-aware representation of Eatonville, Hurston, and African American folklore.  One thing that is perhaps missing to the attendee of the Hurston Festival is the dialogic folklore of the present.  In fact, in the attempt to create an Eatonville that is able to survive despite the economic crunch of Orlando and other surrounding areas, by utilizing the cult of celebrity of Zora Neale Hurston and developing a second natured aura of Eatonville, the dialogic folk Hurston valued may be unwittingly destroyed in the act of trying to “can” it and make it and economical benefit for the region.  

We could metaphorically look at dialogic folklore in Hurston’s sense as John Henry himself, the first nature, competing against the simulacric, industrialized and technological second nature of modernity.  By commodifying folklore as a thing with the purpose of establishing geographic aura and economic gain, we very well may be destroying the very nature of that dialogic folklore.  Or, at the very least, we may begin to accept the canned, second natured folklore as the primary, authentic and dialogic folklore grounded in performance.  In struggling against the steam drill, John Henry ultimately drove himself to death.  By commodifying folklore as things, as art objects, we may also be destroying or losing our ability to participate in the dialogical aura of performance – the very thing, for Hurston, that defined folklore.  

“Art,” Hurston writes, “is the setting up of monuments to the ordinary things about us, in a moment and in time . . . Folklore is the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art, and they make it out of whatever they find at hand” (“Folklore and Music” 876). The question can be asked, however, once folklore is commodified and canned, once it is deployed as a monument to geography, history, or heritage, is it still folklore?  Perhaps Hurston’s response would be that folklore cannot be deployed as a monument or commodified truly, as it exists only in the act of performance.  It is, for Hurston, an act of the first nature that cannot be converted to the second.  What is at stake, however, is our ability to engage and interact within the context of folklore and further, that we have begun to assign the title “folklore” to monuments and art objects, thus accepting the mechanized and technological second nature as that of the first.


Dust Tracks at the Hurston Festival

In January of 2005, my wife and I made the relatively short drive from the hurricane-battered coast of New Smyrna Beach inland to Eatonville for the 16th Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts. It was the festival’s closing Saturday, the busiest and most popular day of the festival.  After walking under the sign reading “Welcome to Zora’s Village” and the infamous giant hat, we wandered through the festival, navigating through the geography of Hurston Avenue, Tea-Cake Parkway, and Joe’s Cul-De-Sac, looking at artwork and crafts laid out under the draping Spanish moss. The aroma of fried catfish, Cajun sandwiches, pretzels, and fried chicken blanketed the air with appetite.  Music accompanied the smell of southern cooking in the air.  We headed toward the main stage, where most of the performances took place.

A woman named “Adella, Adella, the Storyteller” took the stage.  She began to tell stories of first seeing “images” of black people on television as a little girl.  She talked of seeing Sammy Davis and Eartha Kitt on the Ed Sullivan Show and how her family and neighbors would all call each other up to announce that they were on the television.   She paused, and then said, “Now, some folk will tell you that it’s a legend.  But others will tell you it’s true…  That there was a time when Africans could fly…  Just like birds in the sky.” 

Adella then told the story of how an African woman, who had been “initiated in all of the secret rites of Africa,” had been captured, endured Middle Passage, and sold to a slave master in New Orleans.  Ultimately she and all the other kidnapped Africans from this particular ship ended up working on a sugar mill plantation under the harsh whip of a brutal overseer.  Later in the day, a pregnant woman, completely exhausted, fell to the ground. She was unable to work anymore and the overseer began to beat her violently.  The African woman who knew all the secret rites of Africa stopped the overseer and “put something into her ear.  And all around the field there was whispering, whispering, whispering, whispering.  After a moment of awkward stillness, the woman began to stand up.  Just as the overseer arched back to beat the pregnant woman again, she again fell back to the ground.  Only this time, “that woman rose up into the sky… and flew like a bird.”  Unable to believe his eyes, the overseer cried out “Get back to work!”  Back at the house, the overseer anxiously described what had happed out in the cane fields. “My negro gal, flyin? I never did hear tell of such.” Unbelieving, Massa followed the overseer down to the canefields to take a look for himself.  He found the slaves “busy working, cutting cane, with little smiles on their faces, humming a song.” Then, an old man fell to the ground.  As before, the overseer lurched forward to beat the fallen men.  Once again, just as the overseer is about to whip the fallen man, the African woman who knows all the secret rites of Africa performed her spell and the man rose up into the sky and flew like a bird.  Amazed, the overseer and the slave master watch as the spell spreads across the sugarcane field “and that whole field of Africans flew into that sky.”

Now some folk will tell you that it’s true and others will tell you that it’s magic, that there was a time when Africans could fly.  And you know, we’ve forgotten those words that enable us to fly.  That maybe, maybe one day, one of you will wake up with some strange words on your lips and begin to fly –

One fine morning
when this life is over
I’ll fly away

I had been standing there, next to the crowd, videotaping Adella’s story.  As she began to sing, I panned out across the audience.  Some people were fanning themselves in the sun.  Others were smiling.  All were focused on the main stage.  As I began to pan back to the main stage, I found that Adella had left the stage.  She was now walking around and through the audience, still holding her microphone.

I’ll fly away, O Glory, I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye,
I’ll fly away…

As Adella circulated through the audience, I couldn’t help but think of this project.  In my mind, at that point, she was penetrating the audience, shrinking the space between the performer and the audience.  The singer was walking among the audience.  The audience was the stage.  However, at this point there still seemed to be a division between Adella and the rest of the audience, as Adella had the amplified microphone in her hands and the rest of the audience was rendered relatively mute   

– but then she held the microphone out to a young woman sitting in the audience.

When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye
I’ll fly away, I’ll fly away

Adella continued to circulate through the audience, alternating a verse with a chorus, from her to the audience, back and forth, again and again.  This song was slightly familiar to me, but I didn’t know from where.  I certainly didn’t know what it was called at the time, though I assumed it was probably “I’ll Fly Away.”  Then, Adella came to a woman in a brilliant purple dress (with matching hat) and handed the microphone to her.  The woman, without skipping a beat, took the microphone and belted the chorus with full gospel bravado.  She had an incredibly rich, strong, powerful, and passionate voice.  The audience cheered her along, clapping, singing.  Adella danced next to her as she continued to sing.  After the woman in purple’s verse and chorus, she handed the microphone back to Adella.  By this time, the vast majority of the audience was performing with Adella as she continued to walk and pass the microphone around.  Having stopped videotaping at this point, I suddenly realized she was walking in our direction.  

It was at this moment that I truly felt like an outsider at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival.  In my mind, I saw the horror of the next few moments unfold in an instant.  Adella would walk up to me and hold the microphone out.  I would stammer, “I’ll, uh…  Fly away?”  Suddenly everything would go completely quiet and a few hundred participants of the Hurston Festival would look at me with disgust in their eyes.  Adella, however, chose not to bring that particular nightmare to being.  Smiling, she walked past us and back onto the stage.  It was time for Adella to give up the stage (or at least, the microphone and sound system) for the next group of performers on the schedule.

I was relatively unnerved at that moment.  I thought to myself, this was an African American spiritual I don’t know.  Where did this one come from? I was out of context, out of place, out of sorts.  I recognized myself as one of the tourists, as an outsider, as somebody who was just visiting, looking at the surface of things, not only the location of Eatonville, but also the cultures of the Festival’s participants.  Further, I experienced Adella and much of the collected performance from behind my mediated Sony Handycam. Was I even really there?  I was looking at the Hurston Festival as a student of Hurston working on a fairly large writing project.  I was not a participant, but an observer.

I later asked my wife if she was familiar with “I’ll Fly Away.”  I was slightly comforted to learn that she too had also feared Adella’s possible holding-out of the microphone and consequent humiliation.  However, Lori was in fact familiar with this song.  She’d heard it often in her home state of South Carolina while growing up.  I was somewhat surprised I hadn’t come across it in the scores of FWP recordings I had collected in the past few years in researching this project. Googling the lyrics, I soon discovered that “I’ll Fly Away” was written by Albert E. Brumley in 1929.  After visiting his family’s website,, I learned that Brumley was, in fact, a white man born in Oklahoma.  He worked the cottonfields and performed, taught and wrote music in Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas.  He had written “I’ll Fly Away” while he was picking cotton in his 20s.  Shaking my head, I then came across, the website companion to the NPR-aired program Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues.  In one particular segment of the show, David Barnett writes that “I’ll Fly Away” is, in fact, “one of the most recorded gospel songs ever.”  Finally, to my amazement, I then realized why the song had been vaguely familiar.  It wasn’t because I had stumbled across it at some point while researching Hurston and African American Florida folklore, but because the song had been recorded by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss for the Cohen Brothers’ motion picture, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film merging elements of Greek Homeric lore with American folklore in the Mississippi of the 1930s.

Having recovered my memory of where I’d heard “I’ll Fly Away,” I found it ironic that I had assumed the song was exclusively African American and Floridian in nature.  This served as a harsh reminder of how easy it is to slip into the modernist FWP ideological view that a folkloric text is an object handed down through time as a static work and that it can be isolated within geographical boundaries.  Whoever originally “wrote” the song isn’t really the issue.  It didn’t really matter on that particular day who wrote “I’ll Fly Away” or that it was written by an Oklahoman, much less a white man.  What mattered was the performative nature of this text on this particular day in this particular environment.  It was a dynamic social interaction, a call and response grounded in real space and time.  The song was being created in the moment, dialogically as a performance.  Though this was within the boundaries of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival, not the “everyday” world, this was still a highly performative execution of a gospel song grounded in the folk tradition.  Contextualizing this performance with that of Welch and Krauss in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, we can see again that the film presents a canned representation of folklore.  The performativity of the folkloric text has been objectified and recorded in the film (and the Grammy Award winning motion picture soundtrack).  Whereas Adella’s shared performances will vary from event to event, Welch and Krauss’s recorded version is stuck in time, static, and unchanging.  The mediated and edited images of folklore captured in the film can become, for many, the primary frame of reference for this folkloric tradition.  

In a 1995 interview, Adella Gauther says 

I think storytelling is important because, especially now, we’ve lost that human contact, the whole thing of TV. People no longer sit and talk the way they should. TV is there, families no longer sit at a table and have dinner and talk. You get your plate and sit in front of the television while you’re eating and there’s not a lot of conversation. (Paget-Clarke)

Just as the use of the railroad and automobile shrunk the time and space of geography during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, advances in telecommunications technology are also used to shrink the perceived distances between sources of information.  For those with access to these forms of technology, the cultural delta has become saturated within the frames of mainstream media.  But, again, we find that knowledge of folklore doesn’t necessarily constitute authenticity in folklore.  Folklore is performative and based in interpersonal call-and-response.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? does not allow the viewer to communicate and participate with the film.  It is, in short, a canned presentation that utilizes folklore as objectified products for artistic and commercial means.  

The narrative quality of storytelling (both internally within the lyrical context of the song and externally within the social dynamic of storytelling), is at the very root of folkloric texts.  When the audience is divided from the performer, when the folkloric exchange of productivity has been divided through means of technological reproduction, the best that can be done is to capture one particular performance of a folkloric text.  To engage with folklore, one must interact with that folkloric text in a social setting.  Adella, though still mediated with technology and economics, comes much closer to sustaining the folk tradition than any motion picture ever could. Indeed, folklore itself has been embedded with a kind of Cult of Celebrity, as seen in the overwhelming American embrace of “folkloric tradition” following the release of O Brother Where Art Thou? and its respective soundtracks. 

Zora Neale Hurston clearly understood the resistance of her ‘informants’ when she was trying to “collect” and “record” folklore.  By deploying folklore through the act of her characters and subjects speaking within written narratives, Hurston attempts to simulate the dialogic nature of folkloric performance. This the best one can do from Hurston’s perspective, short of actually participating within a folkloric text as performance.  Whereas the Florida Federal Writers Project viewed folklore as a tradition of relatively static songs passed down through the years within particular cultures, Hurston, in “Folklore and Music” (written for The Florida Negro project) recognizes that 

Folklore in Florida is still in the making.  Folk tunes, tales, and characters are still emerging from the lush glades of primitive imagination before they can be finally drained by formal education and mechanical invention. (875)

In folklore, people react to the environment around them.  It is, in Hurston’s words, “the boiled-down juice of human living.  It does not belong to any special time, place, nor people” (875).  Further, she writes that “no country is so primitive that is has no lore, and no country has yet become so civilized that no folklore is being made within its boundaries” (875).  Despite the rise of mechanical reproduction, the loss of geographical aura, and the developments of mass media communication, folklore does and should still exist; but, it exists outside recorded, canned, and produced media.  It is not in the FWP recordings or the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtracks or film.  In fact, it really isn’t even in Hurston’s own texts.  Like dust tracks on a road, the folklore temporally exists wherever and whenever people engage with these folkloric texts.  It exists within its own performative aura in space and time and then quickly disappears from view again until the next performance.    

For Hurston, African American folklore is grounded in the call-and-response structure, where even the line between performer and audience is all but erased.  It comes from the imagination of ordinary people reacting to the world around them through communal performance.  Folklore will only become “extinct” when there are no longer people able to react and engage with the world around them, when people lose the ability to creatively interpret and respond to the world around them with their neighbors, friends and family.  Despite the rise of perceived second nature, folklore does have a tradition of responding to issues of technology, as well.  John Henry, for example, went to war against the very technology that was replacing his role in the economic order of the old South.  Further, Railroad Bill slipped away and hid beneath the reels of film and media representations of his very self, ultimately sabotaging those very recording efforts.  Adella the Storyteller reacts to media representations of black people on the television.  In response, her performances resist a monological capturing of African American folklore.  Therefore, folklore cannot be lost through mediation, as it can never have been captured in the first place.

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