Last year, we posted on a song archive of novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who, it turns out, was also quite a singer. As she traveled through the American South and the Caribbean doing field research in the 1930s and ‘40s, Hurston collected and interpreted several folk songs and stories, sometimes working with folklorists Stetson Kennedy and Alan Lomax. Hurston dropped off the map for a few decades before a revival of her work in the 1970s caused literary scholars and historians to re-evaluate her place in American letters. One recent evaluation of her work and life, the 2008 PBS American Masters documentary Jump at the Sun, profiles the writer in all her independence, contrariness, and vigor. Unfortunately, the full documentary is not online, but you can order a copy of the award-winning film on DVD from California Newsreel or Amazon.
In the short clip above from Jump at the Sun, you can see footage Hurston shot herself, over which she sings, in her crystal clear alto, a bawdy old-time country blues song called “Uncle Bud.” Hurston called “Uncle Bud” a “jook song,” not the kind of thing sung around (or by) respectable ladies. The song comes from experiences with the infamous Chief Transfer Agent for the Texas prison system, “Uncle Bud” Russell, whose dreaded wagon, “Black Betty,” was possibly the reference for a work song immortalized by Lead belly, no stranger to Texas prisons (Russell also gets a name-check in Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special”).
Russell earned his notoriety, delivering 115,000 men and women to prison, including Clyde Barrow in 1930. The prison song, with equally profane, but slightly different lyrics, appeared on a 1960 album called The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men, compiled by Texas musicologist and folklorist Mack McCormick, and Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins had his own narrative of the lawman in “Bud Russell Blues.”
After Hurston’s brief rendition above, we see a photo montage of the author, smiling broadly, never without a rakishly cocked hat. Partly because of the work of folklorists and lovers of Americana like McCormick and Hurston, songs like “Uncle Bud” stayed in the lexicon of popular music, transmitted from obscure folk renditions to the blues and weaving together working-class black and white blues and folk traditions that were often never very far apart to begin with. Those worlds come together in Zydeco legend Boozoo Chavis’ take on “Uncle Bud,” but my favorite version by far is the lyrically cleaned-up, harmonica-driven stomper by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, recorded in 1956 (below).
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness