Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942


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A Florida Treasure Hunt

Songbag Miscellany

Our Florida treasure hunt lasted five years, and all during that time I urged our hunters not to overlook any of the geography, climate, flora, fauna, peoples, and occupations to be found in Florida.

Four men playing instruments
enlarge image icon  Greek orchestra, Tarpon Springs, ca. August 1939. Photograph by Stetson Kennedy, Stetson Kennedy Papers, reproduced with permission. Digital restoration by Ivy Bigbee.

Ethnically speaking, this meant documenting the predominant Cracker and African-American cultures, as well as major Latin (Cuban, Spanish, Italian), Jewish, Bahamian, Greek, and Arabic communities, and smaller pockets of Seminole, Czechs, Slovaks, and others.

Florida occupations that strongly affected folk culture and found expression in folksong included lumbering, turpentining, ranching, fishing, agriculture, citrus growing, railroading, phosphate mining, and tourism.

Besides all the peoples and places, many a "happening" made its way into the Florida songbag, including big "blows" (hurricanes), floating islands, disappearing lakes, shipwrecks, lost boys, lynchings, and so on.

At the time we were recording, Florida folk were still singing ballads commemorating two big blows — the "Miami Hairycane" of 1926, and the "West Palm Beach Storm" of 1928. No one had gotten around to writing a ballad about the "monster" 1935 hurricane which wiped out the Florida Keys.

With reference to the first of the above, folks said, "Blowed so hard, blowed a well up out of the ground, blowed a crooked road straight, and scattered the days of the week so bad Sunday didn't get around 'til late Tuesday morning."

According to the "Hairycane" ballad (which was said to have been composed by a black preacher in the Everglades):

"Ships swam down that ocean,
It was most too sad to tell —
Ten thousand peoples got drown-ded
And they all went to Hell but twelve!"

Two years later, a gale-force tropical storm and a full-scale hurricane hit the lower Florida east coast at the same time. The ballad we recorded immortalized the event as follows:

"The storm met the hairycane in West Palm Beach,
and they sat down and had breakfast together.
Then the storm said to the hairycane,
"What say we breeze on down to Miami
and shake that thing?'"