Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942

About This Collection

Jump to:


The Works Progress Administration (renamed Work Projects Administration in 1939, upon transfer from federal to state control, but identified by the acronym WPA from 1935-1943) was created by executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and authorized by Congress in 1935. The WPA employed 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects in its eight years of existence, providing work (and pay) to those hard hit by the Great Depression.

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections combines sound recordings and manuscript materials from five series of recordings made by WPA workers from the Joint Committee on Folk Arts, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Federal Music Project. The recording equipment was loaned by the Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture of the American Folklife Center) at the Library of Congress. The resulting recordings, documenting folktales, life histories, superstitions, and sacred and secular music of African-American, Arabic, Bahamian, British-American, Cuban, Greek, Italian, Minorcan, Seminole, and Slavic cultures and communities throughout Florida, were donated to the Archive.

The sound quality of these recordings is, at times, extremely poor. The fragile blank acetate disks had to be shipped to the Federal Writers' Project office in Jacksonville, then transported to recording sites throughout the state to be filled with songs and stories before being shipped back to the Library of Congress. It is therefore not surprising that they contain a high level of scratchy surface noise. There are also flaws due to speed changes: the audio was typically recorded at 78 rpm, but some announcements were slowed down to 33 1/3 rpm to save space on the disks. Damaged needles may account for some scratchiness and skipping, and misplaced microphones would make the voices sound muffled and/or distant. Some of the Florida folklife sound recordings have not been included in this online presentation because the damage was too great. Many others have been included despite their flaws, because a melody or tale is still audible.

Some material in this collection may be offensive to some readers and listeners. The collecting was done in the South in 1939-40, when segregation was enforced by law, and fieldworkers and performers alike had preconceived notions about members of other racial and ethnic groups. In addition, some performers freely told stories and sang songs with sexual overtones.


Online Presentation

The online presentation provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying manuscript materials, including recording logs, song and interview transcriptions, and correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel. It features an essay by Zora Neale Hurston, "Proposed Expedition into the Floridas," written during her tenure with the Florida Federal Writers' Project. A new essay, "A Florida Treasure Hunt," was written for this online presentation by Stetson Kennedy, the Florida Writers' Project's state director of folklore, oral history, and ethnic studies from 1937 to 1942. An extensive bibliography, a list of related Web sites, and a guide to the ethnic and language groups of Florida add further context to the New Deal era and to Florida culture.


Recording Series

AFS 3135-3146

Twelve 12-inch records made by Herbert Halpert of the Joint Committee on Folk Arts' Southern Recording Expedition. These disks, recorded in Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida, June 18-21, 1939, form part of a larger collection of Halpert recordings made in nine Southern states between March 12 and June 30, 1939 (AFS 2735-3153). Stetson Kennedy, folklore editor of the Federal Writers' Project for Florida, assisted with the recordings in Jacksonville featuring his Federal Writers' Project colleague Zora Neale Hurston.

AFS 3378-3395

Eighteen 12-inch records made by Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook at Riviera and Key West, Florida, January 15-31, 1940.

AFS 3521-3536

Sixteen 12-inch records made by Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook at Cross City, Jacksonville, and Ybor City (Tampa), Florida, in August 1939.

AFS 3537-3550

Fourteen 12-inch acetate records made by Alton C. Morris, assisted by Florida Federal Writers' Project workers, at Jacksonville, Masaryktown, St. Augustine, Slavia, and Tarpon Springs, Florida, 1939-40.

AFS 3881-3902

Twenty-two 12-inch acetate records made in Florida for the Florida WPA Writers' and Music Projects, and for the Archive of American Folk Song, by Carita Doggett Corse, Robert Cornwall, John Corse, and John Filareton in Glades County, Jacksonville, Kenansville, Mayport, Sebring, and Tarpon Springs, Florida, and at sea, off the Georgia coast, March-July 1940.