Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hearing a Culture Change in Florida

Seventy years ago this month, Zora Neale Hurston began a landmark field recording tour, traveling down through Florida’s hot coastal towns and turpentine camps, gathering songs that people sang to each other: hard songs and mythic stories, with all the power and struggle of life.

Hurston had mapped out the Florida tour in her head, with stops chosen to get Spanish-influenced songs, African-flavored songs, and tunes harking back to Old English. Then she wrote up her plan in a memo and sent it to Washington.

As her younger white colleague Stetson Kennedy remembered, Hurston called folklore the “boiled down pot liquor of human living,” and prized it dearly. She knew the world was changing and that cultures would continue to collide and make new things in those collisions, but she aimed to capture the essence of what had come down to her.

Her plan finally got support with the loan of a state-of-the-art recording machine – a massive beast that required two men to carry – from the Library of Congress.

Just weeks before the end of her time on the WPA, the recording tour she proposed came about and the converted ambulance hauling the recording machine rolled into Jacksonville. She began at a soup kitchen there, recording gospel songs across town from the state office of the WPA Writers’ Project where the white WPA writers worked. Because of Jim Crow segregation, the half dozen African-Americans on the Florida staff worked from another office near the soup kitchen. Hurston herself worked mostly from her hometown of Eatonville.

Songs that she and her WPA coworkers recorded that summer (and again that winter) would roil through American popular culture for decades. “The Sloop John B,” for example: the WPA recordings capture Bahamian and Dixieland versions of the song, which dates back to 1900. It would later have incarnations in folk music, then rock and roll, ending up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. "Ninety-nine and Half Won't Do," a gospel song, would get a soul version from Wilson Pickett.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Iconoclast Rode the Rails for the WPA Guides

A number of hoboes made their way from freight cars to the federal payroll of the WPA Writers’ Project. The Soul of a People book features the stories of three: Rudolph Umland in Nebraska (featured in this review and this online exhibit), Eluard Luchell McDaniel in California, and Harry Partch.

Partch was born in California, grew up in Arizona, and as a young man bounced around the West, feeling freer among hoboes than in straight-laced society. Partch would later become famous as an avant-garde composer whose works were so iconoclastic that he had to create new instruments and scales for them. In between his times on the bum, he worked on the WPA guides to Arizona and California. He later memorialized his wanderings in U.S. Highball, which the Kronos Quartet recorded in the 1990s. John Rockwell, the New York Times critic, called Partch’s compositions “the musical counterpart to the Watts Towers,” that monument of folk art that rose over the working class L.A. neighborhood.

Partch will be featured at a September event in the Soul of a People series at the San Jose Public Library. The Harry Partch Foundation is based in San Diego.

More about Harry Partch from that talk here.

You can now watch the Writers’ Project afternoon at the Library of Congress with excerpts from the film. Click here.