Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing Traditional American Folk Song “Mule on the Mount” (1939)

zora neal hurstonTwo years before the 1937 pub­li­ca­tion of her nov­el Their Eyes Were Watch­ing God, Zora Neale Hurston pub­lished a col­lec­tion of African-Amer­i­can folk­lore called Of Mules and Men (avail­able online here). She did so as an author­i­ty on the sub­ject and a trained anthro­pol­o­gist who had stud­ied under the most well-regard­ed fig­ure in the dis­ci­pline at the time, Franz Boas. Her study was both a per­son­al and a pro­fes­sion­al under­tak­ing for her; although Hurston had grown up in the Deep South—in Eatonville, Florida—she cred­it­ed her aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing with giv­ing her the crit­i­cal dis­tance to real­ly see the cul­ture on its own terms. As she puts it in the Intro­duc­tion to Of Mules and Men, she had known black South­ern cul­ture “from the ear­li­est rock­ing of my cra­dle… but it was fit­ting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wear­ing it…. I had to have the spy-glass of Anthro­pol­o­gy to look through at that.”

After receiv­ing her B.A. from Barnard, Hurston trav­eled exten­sive­ly in the South and the Caribbean in the 1930s to doc­u­ment local cul­tures and con­duct field research. Her work was part­ly spon­sored by a Guggen­heim fel­low­ship and part­ly by Roosevelt’s Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion, whose Fed­er­al Writ­ers Project spon­sored sev­er­al oth­er black writ­ers like Ralph Elli­son, Claude McK­ay, and Richard Wright. Work­ing at times with cel­e­brat­ed folk­lorists Stet­son Kennedy and Alan Lomax, Hurston col­lect­ed record­ings of South­ern and Caribbean sto­ries and folk songs, often telling or singing them her­self. In the clip above, from June 18, 1939, Hurston sings a song she calls “Mule on the Mount.” In the first minute and a half of the record­ing, you can hear Hurston describe the song’s ori­gins and many vari­a­tions to some­one (pos­si­bly Lomax) in the back­ground. She explains how she came to know the song, first hear­ing it in her home­town of Eatonville. Then she begins to sing, in a high, sweet voice, with all the into­na­tion of a true blues singer, punc­tu­at­ing the vers­es with snorts and grunts, as many folk songs—often work songs—would be, though in this case, the snorts may be mule snorts. The record­ing reveals Hurston as a tal­ent­ed inter­preter of her mate­r­i­al, to say the least.

The songs and sto­ries Hurston col­lect­ed, in addi­tion to her child­hood expe­ri­ences, pro­vid­ed her with much of the mate­r­i­al for her nov­els, sto­ries, and plays. Sev­er­al more of her WPA record­ings, also sung by her, are online as mp3s at the Flori­da Depart­ment of State’s “Flori­da Mem­o­ry” project. The orig­i­nals are housed at the Library of Congress’s “Flori­da Folk­life” col­lec­tion. Hurston’s crit­i­cal and cre­ative work brought her renown in her life­time not only as a writer, but as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al and folk­lorist as well—hear her talk, some­what reluc­tant­ly, about Hait­ian zom­bies in a 1943 radio inter­view on the pop­u­lar Mary Mar­garet McBride show. Sad­ly, Hurston passed her final years in obscu­ri­ty and her work was neglect­ed for a cou­ple decades until a revival in the 70s lead by Alice Walk­er. She’s nev­er been known as a singer, but after lis­ten­ing to the above record­ing, you might agree she should be.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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  • M. says:

    OOOOOO, what a treat! Thanks for shar­ing this way!

  • Jack Williams says:

    12 years lat­er and this is still a banger. I come back to this dai­ly I just now thought to leave a com­ment. Thank you so much for this, such a life-chang­ing arti­cle. SO INSPIRATIONAL.
    ‑Much Love, Jack from the Future

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