Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun

21 Sep

The 2008 documentary, Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun aired on PBS’ American Master series and told the story of the fiercely independent writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston.The film used archival footage, some shot by Hurston herself during her trips to gather ethnographic songs and folktales, and footage from a Blackside interview with Alice Walker from the series, I’ll Make Me a World.

Hurston came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance while studying at Barnard College. After becoming a protegé of famed anthropologist, Franz Boaz, and being granted a fellowship, she traveled extensively throughout the South documenting African-American culture. On her travels she recorded over 200 blues and folks songs with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, and filmed religious services in African-American churches. These explorations led to the book, Mules and Men, now regarded as a folklore classic. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, also based in the Deep South was listed in Time’s Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Recognition of Hurston’s achievements came long after her death and her reputation was largely resurrected by writer, Alice Walker. Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston’s anthropological work were often downplayed or disparaged by her fellow Harlem Renaissance writers due to her work’s apolitical nature. Hurston was often at odds with writers such as Richard Wright, who criticized the use of African-American dialect in her work. She died in obscurity and her work was brought to light by Alice Walker when she wrote, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” an article published in Ms. Magazine in 1975 which describes Walker’s efforts to find Hurston’s unmarked grave and place a marker there. In Walker’s interview for I’ll Make Me a World she talks about the impact and influence Hurston had on her own writing.

In this audio recording, Zora Neale Hurston sings a version of the work song, “Mule on the Mountain.” She begins describing the song and its origins and ends with an explanation of how sometimes there are “thirty or forty verses,” and the song is “grown by incremental repetition until perhaps it’s the longest song in America.”

More recordings and documents by Hurston can be found at the Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942 – Library of Congress.

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