Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942


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A Florida Treasure Hunt

'Root-Hog-Or-Die' Days

Those were hard times back then, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. People sometimes referred to them as the "root-hog-or-die" days, meaning that if you didn't keep grubbing you were a goner. Lots of folks were "hollerin' hongry," and longing for a little gravy on their grits. A black preacher on the Sea Islands prayed, "Hear us, Oh Lord, we're down here gnawin' on dry bones!" And on New Year's Eve, Florida Latins intoned, "Go bad year, so we can see if the coming one is better!"

All of us working on the WPA (except administrators) had to sign a Pauper's Oath — that we had no job, no money, no property, and no prospect of getting any of those things. I was still a student at the University of Florida when I applied, and, being eminently qualified in all of the above respects, I got the job.

My job title was "Junior Interviewer," and the pay was $37.50 every two weeks. When that first check arrived, my wife and I went window-shopping, wondering, "What in the world are we going to do with all this money?"

I had taken a fancy to folk stuff while still in my teens, and had struck out on my own to collect folklore in Key West while I was in college. Ben Botkin was sufficiently impressed by my collection of Key West lore that he recommended I be put in charge of the Florida folklore collecting, although I was only twenty-one at the time.

The Florida Writers' Project had a staff of about two hundred, and most of the "field workers" were housewives. The Congressional mandate to the Writers' Project was to write state guidebooks that collectively would "hold up a mirror to America."

Over at our sister New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), when Roy Stryker's team of "on the road" photographers asked him what they should photograph, his answer was "Everything!" No nation in history had ever tried to capture itself in word and picture, and we at the WPA and FSA knew that ours was an important mission.

Not one among us had any formal training as folklorists (there wasn't any to be had). And it was just as well — or even better. Since our interviewers were just as folksy as the interviewees, they could knock on almost any door, and the rapport was there.

I did suggest to our field workers that their first step upon entering a community should be to seek out the most respected individual — whether preacher, teacher, midwife, or voodoo doctor — and get his or her endorsement. Thereafter, just dropping that person's name was enough to open doors wide.

Another helpful hint for our folk treasure hunters was to seek and find what I dubbed "ambulatory repositories," by which I meant some individual who has made it his or her business to soak up virtually all the oral tradition floating around and about. Almost every community had one.

There was "no sucha thing" as a tape recorder, and disk-cutting equipment was expensive and hard to come by, so I had to constantly insist that the field workers "write it down, not up" in order to capture the true voices of the people in writing. Novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings of Cross Creek was busy immortalizing Cracker lore, Zora Neale Hurston of Eatonville was doing the same for African Americans, and some of our staffers had visions of following in their footsteps.