The Sound of 1930s Florida Folk Life
Blues Songs, Rural Life Focus of Library of Congress Web Archive
Listen to independent producer Barrett Golding's report.
Feb. 28, 2002 -- During the height of the Great Depression, the U.S. government began an unprecedented effort to record the sights and sounds of American folk life. In one program, archivists and so-called "sound recordists" were hired by the Library of Congress to document the diverse cultures of Florida -- including the "underground" culture of working-class black Americans, struggling with Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination.
Teams of archivists hauled a massive "portable" disc recorder across Florida to record regional folksongs and folktales in many languages -- including blues and work songs from fishermen, railroad gangs and "turpentine camp" workers who turned pine tree sap into turpentine. The archivists also recorded children's songs, dance and gospel music, and interviews they called "life histories." The project was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by President Franklin Roosevelt.
"Whenever anyone asks me what it was like, working with the Works Progress Administration and recording Florida folksongs back in the 1930s for the Library of Congress, I tell them we were as excited as a bunch of kids on a treasure hunt."
Stetson Kennedy, from his essay A Florida Treasure Hunt
Stetson Kennedy was a leader among those sound recordists. Independent producer Barrett Golding spoke with Kennedy, now 85 and living near Jacksonville, Fla., for an in-depth retrospective of the folk life project, featuring Kennedy's recordings from 1937 through 1942. As Black History Month draws to a close, All Things Considered features a report from Golding.
Kennedy traveled throughout Florida with another recordist, famed Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Together they visited places like the turpentine camps near Cross City and the Clara White Mission soup kitchen in Jacksonville. Hurston's book Men and Mules is about her travels gathering folklore in Florida.
The Jim Crow laws forced Stetson and Hurston to travel separately -- he is white, she was black, and they couldn't legally work together. "You could get killed lighting someone's cigarette," Kennedy told Golding. "Or shaking hands -- both colors, white and black."
The Library of Congress recently made a wealth of recordings and pictures from the project available online. Kennedy has been called "one of the pioneer folklore collectors during the first half of the 20th century," and his work is a keystone of the library's presentation.
The project eventually documented folktales, life histories, superstitions and the religious and secular music of African-American, Arabic, Bahamian, British-American, Cuban, Greek, Italian, Minorcan, Seminole and Slavic communities throughout Florida.
One Kennedy recording testifies to how the project was welcomed by those who contributed their music or voices. "Dear Lord, this is Eartha White talkin' to you again," one recording begins. "I just want to thank you for giving mankind the intelligence to make such a marvelous machine (the portable recorder), and a president like Franklin D. Roosevelt who cares about preserving the songs people sing."
Browse more NPR stories on Black History Month.
Stetson Kennedy's essay reflecting on his Depression-era project to record Florida's folk life.
The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress' Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections Web site has hundreds of audio files and photos collected during the project.
The American Folklife Center was created in 1976, and incorporates the Archive of Folk Culture, established by the Library of Congress in 1928 as a repository for American folk music.
Independent producer Barrett Golding is the project director for HearingVoices.com, a radio project based in Montana and Utah. This story was produced with grants from the Florida Humanities Council, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Folklife Center Parsons Fund.