Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942


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A Florida Treasure Hunt

By Stetson Kennedy, (State Director, WPA Writers' Project, Folklore, Oral History, and Ethnic Studies, 1937-42)


Whenever anyone asks me what it was like, working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) 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.1

None of us had ever gone hunting for folksongs before, but we were soon able to recognize one the moment we heard it, and to realize that it was truly a bit of cultural treasure that we were discovering and preserving for future generations to enjoy.

And sure enough, here we are, more than a half century later, able to pick and choose in a split second, on our computer screens, from among thousands of items it took us five years to collect. In the 1930s, we traveled backroads the length and breadth of the Florida peninsula, toting a coffee-table-sized recording machine into turpentine camps, sawmills, citrus groves, the Everglades, out onto railroad tracks, and aboard shrimp trawlers — wherever Florida folks were working, living, and singing.

"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 to the Archive of American Folk-Song (now the American Folklife Center) at the Library of Congress, the newspapers would report, "Canned Florida Folksongs Sent to Washington."

And now all you have to do is select a can from the Web site shelf, open it up, and enjoy!

The voices you hear singing, talking, laughing, joking, and telling tall tales are those of Floridians who have almost all gone to Beluthahatchee (an Afro-Seminole name for Happy Hunting Ground). As for the songs they sang and tales they told, many are still to be heard, having been passed along as hand-me-downs from one generation to the next, while others survive in the "cans" we put them in — and now on the World Wide Web!

Happily, many of the folksongs recorded by the WPA have also been preserved in books such as A Treasury of American Folklore, as well as Southern, Western, and other regional "Treasuries," all edited by the man who served as national director of the WPA's folklore collecting, Dr. Benjamin Botkin.2

We are all indebted to Ben Botkin for teaching us, in his seminal treatise entitled "Bread and Song," about the inter-relationship between life and culture.3 A bit later on, another outstanding folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston, gave us a definition that will stand for all time: "Folklore is the boiled-down juice, or potlikker, of human living."

Robert Cook, Stetson Kennedy, and Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy
enlarge image icon  Robert Cook (with camera) and Stetson Kennedy (with recording equipment) documenting Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy, Ybor City, 1939. Timed photograph by Stetson Kennedy, Stetson Kennedy Papers, reproduced with permission. Digital restoration by Ivy Bigbee.

1. The Works Progress Administration (renamed Work Projects Administration in 1939, identified by the acronym WPA from 1935-1943), was created by executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and authorized by Congress in 1935. Taking up where the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) left off, the WPA employed 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects in its eight years of existence. The WPA provided work (and pay) to those hard hit by the Great Depression; their labors resulted in the construction of bridges, dams, and highways, and in the creation of murals, state guidebooks, and folklife surveys, among other accomplishments. (Return to Text)

2. B. A. Botkin, ed., A Treasury of American Folklore (New York: Crown Publishers, 1944). Dr. Benjamin A. Botkin became folklore editor of the Federal Writers' Project in 1938. Later that year, he represented the Federal Writers' Project, and served as chair, of the Joint Committee on the Folk Arts, which included representatives from the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Art Project, the WPA education division, the Historical Records Survey, and the WPA recreation division. Botkin was named head of the Archive of American Folk-Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center) of the Library of Congress in 1942. (Return to Text)

3. B. A. Botkin, "WPA and Folklore Research: 'Bread and Song.'" Southern Folklore Quarterly 3 (March 1939): 7-14. (Return to Text)