These days there are many more ways than there once were to access various outlines, bibliographies, accounts and even analyses of African American folk culture-- from the storytelling practices, sermons and prayers to the music of gospel, work songs, blues, jazz and spirituals-- even as large and prestigious populations, black or white, continue to regard such work as useless, irrelevant, shallow and meaningless. One of the ways in which "folk culture" is dismissed and made incomprehensible is by the usual habit of denying that it has a history. In this formulation rap, hip hop and reggae are given precisely equivalent weight in an ahistorical template to blues, gospel, jazz and spirituals, all of which are seen as flat. Folk culture has no histories, no progressions, no series of developments because it was largely practiced and innovated by people who did not write histories or critical analyses or accounts of what they were doing. Therefore in a dominant culture in which the written is prized above all, African American folk culture lacks discernible depth.
Indeed, all those who attempted to analyze or historicize folk culture (among the texts in this tradition would be Blues People by Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, to which this blog is dedicated) could not help but lose some essential and definitive aspects of what which they were describing in the translation. This is the nature of cultural preservation in writing of things that originate in the oral tradition, and many aspects of culture that we take for granted originated in oral forms but we rarely acknowledge this or take it into account. Indeed, I suppose the success of cultural preservation is measured by the degree to which an item in its inventory is no longer linked to its oral history. Examples upon which we heavily rely would be The Bible, European fairy tales, Homer's Odyssey and the Iliad and there are many more. We recognize these texts solely in their written forms, which allow us to access some portion of concepts and narratives that are centuries old. However, invariably, some aspects of its origins in the oral traditions of the culture that bore them is lost. We Western people who become a society in which we rely upon that lost as a defining feature of excellence. As such a historical African American oral tradition cannot be recognized or incorporated, except to the degree that it can be disassociated from its roots among what Hurston called "the folk further down."
When I went to teach for two years at Cornell University (2005-2008) in African American Studies, my first experience of teaching at an Ivy League institution, I came to deliver the message of the wisdom of unlettered blacks to the cultural and educational elite only to find that I, myself, did not have the cultural authority to deliver it, that I had zero credibility. That indeed, Hurston's own lack of credentials within the academy (despite her years as an undergraduate at Barnard without which I doubt we would even know her name even now), coupled with my own lack of credibility (no Ivy League degrees at all) gave me no power at all to convey importance on this topic, or on any other. I learned from this a little bit about why people study the things they study in the academy, that is in order to convey upon themselves the authority to speak and be heard.
In any case, long before I fully understood this radical invisibility on my own part, which I had already diagnosed in my second book Invisibility Blues (1990), toward the beginning of my time at Cornell (actually I presented this material there for the first time) I constructed this preliminary outline of folk culture in order to describe to others the place of Hurston's Mules and Men in the context of African American culture, and its use in her fiction, plays and folklore.
Folk Culture of African Americans
c. Beliefs and Practices
d. Spirit Possession
2. Louisiana and U.S.
a. Music (Bernice Johnson Reagon)
*Traditional Spirituals—Congregational Singing
Say Amen, Somebody! (1982) Dir: George T. Nierenberg. With Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Willie May Ford Smith, the O’Neal twins.
Berneice Johnson Reagan, ed. Wade in the Water: Vol 2: Congregational Singing: Nineteenth Century Roots. Smithsonian Folkways CD.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. Bison Books. ISBN 0-8032-3913-0.
The Story of Gospel Music: The Power in The Voice. BBC Video. VHS
The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and The Branches, Vol 1., Columbia/Sony Music 1991.
Willie Johnson, The Complete Blind Willie Johnnson.”
Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Limelight: 6th Edition, 2002.
---. We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African-American Gospel Composers. DC: Smithsonian Press, 1992.
b. Sermon (C.F. Franklin, Alan Lomax)
*Liturgical or anchored by scriptural reference
*Chanting, Singing and Moaning
*Call and Response
c. Services—this remains rather vague in her descriptions.
2. Sanctified—Evangelical (clearly her heart was with this church, not the other)
THE QUILTS OF GEE'S BEND--VHS, produced and directed by Matt Arnett & Vanessa Vadim, A Tinwood Media Production, 2002, including footage from 1941, photographs by Arthur Rothstein for the Federal Security Administration and Music from HOW WE GOT OVER: SACRED SONGS OF GEE'S BEND, 1941 &2002 CD Tinwood Media.
*Liturgical or anchored by scriptural reference
*Chanting, Singing and Moaning
Alan Lomax Collection, Lay My Burden Down
*Call and Response
*Other Practices and Beliefs
II. Secular—This portion of folklore, in some ways the most mysterious, includes a series of stories that are orally performed before an audience of one’s peers, and among whom the stories are already well known. The mystery lies in where and how they begun, during slavery, after slavery and if so, why and how did the tellers arrive at the various narrative formats. Such practices are thought to have largely prevailed into the 20th century in a rural and remote setting where electricity, juke-boxes, television and radio would have been less of an option as regular entertainment.
Much of the value of the story is seen to lie in the particular performance and manner of telling, which is viewed as a competitive activity, even cause for exchanging sharp criticisms, such as the dozens in which outrageous things are said about the mother of one’s opposition. Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men does an excellent job of providing an extensive sample of such stories and also setting the scene for situations in which the stories would be swapped one after the other, as in a contest to see who could tell the best one. The stories, according to Hurston, were known as “lies,” in recognition of their fictitious and phantomsgorical nature.
In general, the stories take a humorous and cynical approach to often serious matters, such as slavery, the way God made the earth, the shenanigans of the Devil, various forms of menial labor, the relationships between men and women. Also, I think there is a sense in which these narratives are actually the epistemological backbone of all other forms of folkloric performance both dance and musical.
MULES AND MEN. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1935. Reprinted with foreward by Arnold Rampersad, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
TELL MY HORSE. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott, 1938. Reprinted with a foreward by Ishmael Reed, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Pamela Bordelon, Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston: From the Federal Writers’ Project. Norton 1999.
*Slavery Stories: John and the Master, especially
*Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox—Animal Tales
*Race Stories—How we became black
*Stories about Heaven—particularly its racial composition
*White Folks Stories---particularly the strange things they do
*Devil and God—both amusingly personified
*Bible Stories—humorous, ironic renditions of scriptural tales.
*Flood or Water Stories—Noah’s may come up.
*Preacher Stories—lots about the potential for absurd callings or mistaken calls to preach.
C. Work Songs—In Prisons, Outside of Prisons
Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm, 1947-1948 Volume 1: Murderous Home and Volume II: Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling? The Alan Lomax Collection,
D. The Blues—Instrumentation
*Other Instruments—Harmonicas, etc.
E. The Blues—Singers
Charles Keil. Urban Blues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. Oxford UP, 1992
Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. Verso, 1998.
Pete Daniel. Deep'n As It Comes: The 1927 Mississippi Flood. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
David Evans, "The Origins of Blues and Its Relationship to African Music." In Images de L'africaine de l'antiquite au XXe siecle, edited by Daniel Droixhe and Kalus H. Kiefer, pp. 129-41. Frankfurth; Peter Lang, 1987.
W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues; An Autobiography of of W.C. Handy, edited by Arna Bontemp, 1955. Reprint: New York: Da Capo Press, 1985
W.E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.
Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. Urbana: University of Ill Press, 1970.
Selections from DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN, 1966, Vestapol 13049 DVD in which Alan Lomax simulated the atmosphere of a local jook joint during the Newport Blues Festival, held in tandem with the Jazz Festival in 1966. It was at one of these festivals at which Bob Dylan inaugurated the use of electronic amplification with his folk music. Much more to be said about this some of it in the Autobiography of George Wein, published in the past five years, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.
Bukka White, BABY YOU'RE KILLING ME; Son House, FOREVER ON MY MIND; Howling Wolf, MEET ME IN THE BOTTOM; Rev. Pearly Brown, KEEP YOUR LAMP TRIMMED AND BURNING, PURE RELIGION and IT'S A MEAN OLD WORLD.
There were many black women blues singers and instrumentalists but they are rarely commented upon or written about for reasons passing understanding. I guess they don't fit in with some of the most popular stereotypes about the blues.
Selections from THE AMERICAN FOLK BLUES FESTIVAL, VOLUME III: Big Mama Thornton, HOUND DOG (1965) Big Mama Thornton has numerous recordings, many of which I have in my collection, but she is grossly under-documented and is awaiting further analysis and commentary; Koko Taylor & Little Walter, WANG DANG DOODLE (1967). Koko Taylor is also a revelation, about whom I know even less.
Alan Lomax, The Land Where The Blues Began. The New Press, 1993.
The Land Where The Blues Began. CD 1993.
G. Children’s Songs
Bessie Jones, Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Let Your Backbone Slip” Rounder CD C11587
I. Other Music—Country, Zydeco?
1. Children’s Songs
ZORA NEALE HURSTON--FICTION
Seraph on the Suwanee (1948).
Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston. Turtle Island 1985.
Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. With Langston Hughes, 1997.
ZORA NEALE HURSTON--REFERENCES
Cheryl Wall, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. Oxford UP 2000.
Robert W. Croft, A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. University of Florida Press, ISBN 0-8130-2793-4.
Carla Kaplan, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Doubleday 2003.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: a Biography / Urbana: University of IllinoisPress, 1980.
My Name is Zora!
PBS Home Video, American playhouse (Television program) VHS
Zora in Florida. [electronic resource] / edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, c1991.
Zora in Florida edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-1061-6.
Speak, so you can speak again : the life of Zora Neale Hurston compiled by Lucy Anne Hurston and the estate of Zora Neale Hurston, Doubleday, c2004.w/cd.
Cd tracks 1-11 Zora Neale Hurston interviewed by Mary Margaret McBride on WEAF Radio, January 25, 1943; tracks 12-25 folk songs collected by Hurston for the WPA and the Library of Congress in Jacksonville, Florida on June 18, 1939.
“Let’s Shake It,” “Dat Old Black Gal,” “Shove It Over,” “Mule on the Mount,” games of “Georgia Skin” and “Let the Deal Go Down,” “Uncle Bud, Ever Been Down, “Halimuhfack,” “Tampa,” “Po’Gal,” “Mama Don’t Want No Peas, No Rice,” “Crow Dance,” “Wake Up, Jacob,” “Oh, Mr. Brown.”
Zora Neale Hurston: Recordings, Manuscripts, and Ephmera in the Archive of Folk Culture and Other Divisions of the Library of Congress. Compiled by Laura K. Crawley and Joseph C. Hickerson
OTHER FOLKLORE COLLECTIONS
Alan Dundes, editor. Mother Wit: From the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpetation of Afro-American Folklore. University of Mississippi 1995.
William J. Faulkner, The Days When the Animals Talked: Black American Folktales & How They Came to Be. Africa World Press, 1993.
Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds. Book of Negro Folklore, Dodd Mead, 1958.
The Journal of American Folk-Lore.
Bruce Jackson, editor. The Negro and His Folklore in 19th Century Periodicals. University of Texas, 1967.
----. ed. Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons. Cambridge; Harvard UP, 1972.
Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes. Step It Down; Games, Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Harold Courlander. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. Crown Publishers, 1972.
Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus Stories and Other Folklore (various collections). 1880s through 1920.
Richard Dorson. American Folktales. Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett, 1956.
Alan Dundes, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.
Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1941; revised edition 1958.
HISTORICAL REFERENCES—FOLKLORE & FOLK CULTURE
Bruce Jackson, ed. The Negro and His Folklore in 19th Century Periodicals. University of Texas Press, 1967.
Morris Turner III, America’s Black Towns and Settlements: A Historical Reference
Guide. Volume One 1998.
Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices. Thunder Mouth Press, 1941.
Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom, 1939.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Illustrated Souls of Black Folk edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr. Annotated, Illustrated, Documentary Edition. Paradigm Publishers 2005.
Robert Baron, African in the Americas: Melville J. Herskovit’s Folkloristic and Anthropologic Scholarship, 1923-1941, 2 volumes. Dissertation 1994.
OTHER LITERATURE BESIDES HURSTON ON THE FOLK
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852.
--- The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1853.
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Is Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. Oxford UP 1993
Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus Tales.
James Weldon Johnson: Writings. Library of America 2002.
Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays. Library of America 2002
Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Heart of Happy Hollow: Stories. ISBN 0-7679-1981-5 Dodd Mead
Paul Laurence Dunbar, When Malindy Sings. Illustrated with Photographs by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. Dodd Mead 1903
Lida Keck Wiggins, The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Kraus Reprint 1971
In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar edited by Herbert Woodward Martin & Ronald Primeau. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.
--- Sport of the Gods, 1901.
---. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Toni Braxton, editor. University of Virginia Press Dodd Mead 1913. 1993
Dubose Heyward, Porgy 1933
Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, 1933.
NOVELS AND STORIES. Edited and with notes by Cheryl Wall. New York:
Library of America, 1995.
THE SANCTIFIED CHURCH. Foreward by Toni Cade Bambara. Berkeley, Calif: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981.
SPUNK: THE SELECTED SHORT STORIES OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON. Berkeley, Calif: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985.
There are as well many unanthologized articles, stories and plays, including at least three novels, one of which was about King Herod, that have been completely lost. Her later articles and interviews were the most controversial,
such as "The 'Pet Negro' System" first published in AMERICAN MERCURY 55 (July 1942) and then condensed in NEGRO DIGEST 1(June 1943), pp. 47-49 and her negative review of Richard Wright's UNCLE TOM'S CHILDREN in SATURDAY REVIEW, April 2, 1938, p. 32.
On the other hand, she wrote many invaluable articles and essays, such as "Three Days Among Maroons." Review of JOURNEY TO ACCOMPONG by Katherine Dunham, NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW, January 12, 1947, p. 5.
It is difficult to believe that one person can be so wonderful and so awful at the same time but Hurston is definitely a case of that. Her final reasons for doing and saying things remain a mystery to most of us.
But you can see by the illustrious list of black writers and intellectuals who have aligned themselves with her work that many many smart people remain in awe of her gifts as writer, playwright, anthropologist and folklorist.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF WRITNGS ABOUT HURSTON
There's quite a lot at this point but in my estimation, the irreplaceable work, which has completely re-shaped my analysis is Valerie Boyd's WRAPPED IN RAINBOWS: THE LIFE OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON. Scribner's 2003 and Carla Kaplan's ZORA NEALE HURSTON: A LIFE IN LETTERS. New York: Doubleday, 2002.