‘Unbelievable Originality’: Lining Tracks and Performativity in Zora Neale Hurston’s Folk Concerts

It is nearly a century since Zora Neale Hurston wrote Barracoon, an ethnography of Cudjo Lewis, the Alabama man believed to be the last living African enslaved in the United States. On May 8 Lewis’ story became widely available to the public for the first time. To mark this historic occasion, and to commemorate the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston – a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, African-American folklorist and ethnographer, and one of the most significant women writers of the twentieth century – USSO has commissioned a series of articles on any aspect of Hurston’s life, her art, her anthropology. This article is the first in the series.


Hurston.jpgOn September 25th 1931, anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston wrote to Charlotte Osgood Mason, informing her patron that she was planning a concert ‘of the most intensely black type’[1]. Reflecting on the theatrical project in her biography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston later wrote, ‘I did the concert because I knew that nowhere had the general public ever heard Negro music as done by Negroes’[2]. She added that African American spirituals had been ‘tampered with’ by musicians, changed to such an extent that they had become ‘ersatz’, too ‘highly flavoured with Bach and Brahms, and Gregorian chants’[3]. The concert that Hurston described to Mason would eventually develop into a series of theatrical productions, re-creations of ‘lining tracks’ heard in the railroad camps of Polk County, and sung by the railroad liners laying sections of track along the Florida East Coast Railway.

The songs that Hurston collected were sung in accompaniment of the physical movement and motion of hammering (or ‘spiking’) a steel lining bar into place. In Dust Tracks she recalled the ‘clang of nine-pound hammers on railroad steel’, the ‘rhythmic swing’ of the hammer, and the chant of the lead ‘singing-liner’ prompting the liners in a repetitive call-and-response rhythm as they spiked the rail[4]. In railroad camps, Hurston listened to well-known rhythms such as, ‘John Henry’, ‘Halimuhfack’, ‘Can’t You Line It?’ and ‘Mule on de Mount’, until she was able to sing them herself. In recordings made in 1939 with Herbert Halpert and Stetson Kennedy, two Federal Music Project anthropologists, Hurston performed several of the songs from memory and discussed their significance and function in the context of the lining process. Referring to the lining rhythm, ‘Shove it Over’, she explained the purpose of the lyrics; ‘When [the liners] say “shak-a-lack-a-lack-a-lack”, they’re getting ready to pull [the rail] back, and when they say “hah!”, they’ve shoved the rail over’[5]. On January 10th 1932, Hurston debuted the first of her folk concerts, The Great Day, at the John Golden Theatre in New York. The concert would undergo several adaptations in both form and content, performed under the various titles of From Sun to Sun, All de Live Long Day, and Singing Steel.Dust_Tracks_on_a_Road

The Boasian influence was evident in her anthropological method, in which she embedded herself within the small Southern communities and railroad camps from which the songs derived. For Hurston scholar Pamela Bordelon, Hurston’s selection of folk songs ‘showcases those she believed most representative of Florida black folks’ life, work, and recreation’. Lining rhythms in particular, she argues, ‘express perfectly the communal nature of both work and music’[6]. In her own description of her ethnographical approach, Hurston told Kennedy and Halpert: ‘I just get in the crowd with the people if they are singing, and I listen as best I can, and then I start to join in with a phrase or two and then finally I get so I can sing a verse…then I sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing them just like them’.

In the introduction to the recently published Barracoon, Deborah Plant argues that Hurston ‘was not only committed to collecting artefacts of African American folk culture’, but was also ‘adamant about their authentic presentation[7]. Within the context of the posthumously published story of Cudjo Lewis, Plant’s assertion is accurate. She suggests that Hurston offers a complete orature that authenticates Lewis’s story ‘as his own’, establishing clear lines between cultural reality and fiction that remained otherwise indistinguishable in her folkloric collections.

Letters to Mason also revealed the care with which Hurston approached the writing and publication of Barracoon, authenticity being her foremost concern. She wrote to Mason in reference to a request by publishers for the manuscript to be re-written ‘in language rather than in dialect’, something which both she and her patron were reluctant to do.

In the context of lining rhythms, however, the presentation of Hurston’s material was not without issue. In each of the adaptations presented by Hurston, the programme culminated with three Bahamian ‘fire’ dances, initially observed by Hurston in Nassau. A total of sixteen cast members in full Bahamian costume performed the ‘Jumping Dance’, ‘Ring Play’, and ‘Crow Dance’ as the finale of each concert. In the programme for From Sun to Sun, the second in Hurston’s concert series, the programme gave considerable detail and contextual information on both the lining rhythms and ‘jook songs’, while the ‘Crow Dance’ was described only as ‘a primitive and exciting folk dance’[8]. While Hurston noted that the popular work songs ‘aroused interest’ and had subsequently been ‘exploited’ by singers in other productions, she also stated that the presentation of Bahamian dances was indicative of a ‘sharp trend’ and interest in ‘primitive Negro dancing’[9]. In Dust Tracks, she recalled that she ‘could just see an American audience being thrilled’ with the spectacle.

Barracoon

Zora Neale Hurston and Deborah G. Plant (ed.), Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, (Harper Collins, 2018), is available from May 8.

While the performative aspects of everyday life were central to Hurston’s shift from anthropological text to theatre, the spectacle of lining songs performed on a mid-town Manhattan theatre stage signalled a departure from an authentic form of representation. Despite Hurston’s strenuous attention to detail, in the move from the railroad camp to the stage, the work songs lost the essential functional qualities that underpinned both the rhythm and lyrics. While in Dust Tracks she later suggested that she ‘had tried to present Negro singing in a natural way – with action’, there is little in Hurston’s account of rehearsals for The Great Day to indicate precisely how the crucial motions involved in “lining” the rail were adapted to accommodate the spatial limitations of the theatre stage. The choreographed aspects of the productions also contradict any notion of ‘natural’ movement. Arguably, without a functional element, the lining rhythms lost both their cultural status and historical resonance.

Hurston employed a broad musical ensemble to recreate the sounds, sorrows, and ‘intricate percussive melodies’ she had heard on the railroad, including the guitar, drums, and a substantial choral cast for vocal effects, the first indication of conscious adaptation between the original musical form and theatrical production[10]. Prior to the first performance of The Great Day she arranged for her choice of a young baritone, who she claimed had ‘more volume and more quality than Paul Robeson’, to audition with George Leyden Colledge at Steinway Hall[11]. Several classical musicians including distinguished organist, Melville Charlton, had previously mentored the baritone. Of Charlton, Hurston remarked, ‘You know very well what he wanted to do with the work songs. Make them into Bach Chorals’. She also stated that she had cast ‘a fine black girl as a contralto soloist, and a lovely black girl as a soprano’. As with the physical staging of the performance, Hurston’s careful method of casting choral voices to sing the lining rhythms seems at odds with her aim to make their representation as realistic as possible. Despite her dismissal of Eurocentric musical expression, her choice of singers reflected a distinctly classical composition, establishing a musicality to present to theatre audiences that was a distant echo of the Polk County liners.

Transporting the sounds of Polk County to the metropolitan stage was a crucial exercise in confronting the elitist attitudes of Harlem Renaissance leaders, bringing the deprived socio-economic aspects of life in the rural South to metropolitan audiences. Hurston later conceded that she had made no tangible profit from the productions, although she wrote to Mason, ‘I am satisfied in knowing that I established a trend and pointed Negro expression back towards the saner ground of our own unbelievable originality’[12]. In her theatrical representations, she revealed the inherent conflict between anthropology and fiction, personal philosophy and creative approach.

[1] Letter to Charlotte Osgood Mason, September 25th 1931, in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, ed. by Carla Kaplan (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), p. 228.

[2] Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006), p. 279.

[3] Ibid, p. 280.

[4] Ibid, p. 148.

[5] Stetson Kennedy, Herbert Halpert, Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Halimuhfack’ (1939), Audio Recording, Library of Congress.

[6] Pamela Bordelon, ed., Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston From the Federal

Writers Project (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 157.

[7] Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon (London: Harper Collins, 2018), p. xxiii. [emphasis added]

[8] From Sun to Sun (programme notes), in Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston, by Lynda Marion Hill (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1996), p. 23.

[9] Dust Tracks, p. 281.

[10] Daphne. A. Brooks, ‘Sister Can You Line It Out?: Zora Neale Hurston and the Sound of Angular Black Womanhood’,  Amerikastudien/American Studies, 55.4 (2010), p. 617.

[11] Letter to Charlotte Osgood Mason (October 15th 1931), Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, ed. Carla Kaplan (New York: First Anchor Books, 2003), p. 231-235.

[12] Ibid, p. 285.

About hrhuxley

Hannah Huxley is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. Her thesis focuses on the aesthetics of sound in African American literature and the soundscape of Harlem between 1920-40. Her broader research interests include Twentieth-century American literature, American modernism, sonic modernity, and transatlantic cultural exchange.
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