Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing the Bawdy Prison Blues Song “Uncle Bud” (1940)

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).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Leg­endary Folk­lorist Alan Lomax: ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’

Watch the Only Known Footage of the Leg­endary Blues­man Lead Bel­ly (1935 and 1945)

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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