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[Detail] Fishermen. Key West, Florida


Collection Overview

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942, documents the music, history and culture of Florida. Completed as part of the Florida Works Project Administration program this collection includes the music and stories of the various ethnic groups throughout Florida. Also included are performances by Zora Neale Hurston, Stetson Kennedy, Alton Morris and other noted writers and artists.

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942, provides access to sound recordings of regional and ethnic music of Floridians collected during the Great Depression. The collection also includes recording logs and transcriptions of interviews conducted by fieldworkers. Correspondence between field personnel and the Library of Congress regarding the collection of material and problems encountered with recording equipment are likewise included.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by executive order on May 6, 1935, as part of the administration's New Deal program to provide work for those hard hit by the Great Depression. The WPA operated several major programs at the national level and funded numerous state programs providing jobs for both skilled and unskilled workers. One of its programs, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), hired unemployed writers, artists, actors, and musicians. The Florida Folklife Project was established under the auspices of the FWP and the Florida Music Project to collect sound recordings of folk music representing the diverse ethnic composition of the state and to document folktales from communities throughout Florida.

The collection includes some brief life histories of individuals who contributed music and stories as well as sacred and secular music of African-American, Bahamian, British-American, Cuban, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Minorcan, Seminole, and Slavic cultures. (Brief background on the Ethnic and Cultural Groups of Florida is provided with the collection.) Unfortunately, the sound quality of some of the online recordings is extremely poor—a problem addressed in correspondence from the state administrator of the project to the director of the Music Division at the Library of Congress early in the process of collecting recordings. Students using the collection should be aware that the "Notes" section of the bibliographic page for each document can be very helpful; in addition, many documents' bibliographic pages have links to "Related Manuscripts," which often have helpful information or transcriptions of the songs.

The collection includes a Special Presentation: "A Florida Treasure Hunt," by Stetson Kennedy, folklore editor of the Federal Writers' Project for Florida. The essay provides a context for the collection and supplies information regarding the collection of recordings and some of the problems posed by rigid segregation in Florida. Note that the recordings were collected in the South in 1939-1940 when segregation was strictly enforced by law; some fieldworkers and performers used pejorative terms in reference to members of other racial and ethnic groups. In addition, some performers freely told stories and sang songs with sexual overtones. Thus, some material in this collection is offensive, and students using the collection should be prepared for the attitudes and language they will encounter. Florida Folklife opens avenues for exploration of popular culture by delving into the folk music and folktales of ethnic communities in Florida. Although the work songs, ballads, and folklore were gathered in Florida, they have much in common with similar works found in the rural South and ethnic enclaves in urban communities throughout the nation.

The lyrics of some of the recorded songs are nonsensical, but others relate a wide range of human experiences and provide various tools to clarify or elaborate upon information presented in historical narratives.

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Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

A Florida Treasure Hunt

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be ll-encompassing.

  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945

Related Collections and Exhibits

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Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Performer Index , Audio Title Index, Geographic Index or Manuscript Title.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.