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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The musical anthropology of Zora Neale Hurston
Inspired by Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air, a popular history of the anthropologist Franz Boas’s influential group of students, I’ve been working my way through some of the classics of the Boas circle — Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Ruth Benedict’s
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Inspired by Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air, a popular history of the anthropologist Franz Boas’s influential group of students, I’ve been working my way through some of the classics of the Boas circle — Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), and, this week, Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935), which collects Black folkore from central Florida, where Hurston grew up. (The Review published an essay drawn from King’s excellent book a few years ago.) Besides trickster tales and just-so stories, Hurston collected songs, like:
Ah’d ruther be in Tampa with the Whip-poor-will,
Ruther be in Tampa with the Whip-poor-will
Than to be ’round here —
Honey with a hundred-dollar bill.
Hurston didn’t have the equipment to make field recordings when doing the research that went into Mules and Men, but, as the Yale scholar of American and African American studies Daphne A. Brooks explains in her article “‘Sister, Can You Line It Out?’: Zora Neale Hurston and the Sound of Angular Black Womanhood” (Amerikastudien/American Studies, 2010), she was herself recorded in 1939 by the folklorist Herbert Halpert, singing the folk songs she’d spent much of her career learning. And in 1936, as Brooks writes, Alan Lomax had recorded Hurston’s “high-pitched, ludic, and sugar-sweet performance of ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Bama Bama’” in Haiti.
The Library of Congress has all of those recordings, and many are available online. Hurston described her process this way:
I just get in the crowd with the people, and if they sing it, I listen as best I can and then I start to joinin’ in with a phrase or two and then finally I get so I can sing a verse. And then I keep on until I learn all the verses and then I sing ’em back to the people until they tell me that I can sing ’em just like them. And then I take part, and I try it out on different people who already know the song until they are quite satisfied that I know it. Then I carry it in my memory.
That’s from her recording of a song called “Halimuhfack,” made for Halpert; you can listen to it through the Library of Congress.
As Brooks observes at the beginning of her article, “Bessie Smith she was not … You’d most likely be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call her a ‘great singer.’” And yet, what Brooks calls her “weird, quirky, piercing voice” has something. In Brooks’s analysis, Hurston’s awkward, tonally imprecise, yet oddly affecting and intensely dedicated musical performance “encapsulates the oscillating Zora, the woman who was both of and in the crowd as well as whimsically positioned outside of it.” On this reading, the awkwardness and strangeness of Hurston’s vocal performances are a sort of symbol for the disorienting reflexivity of anthropology in general.
- “By tying Iran’s fate to an unruly Axis, Khamenei has endangered his country and put it at serious risk of war.” In The Atlantic, Arash Azizi on how Iran is losing control of its proxies.
- “MacIntyre cut out the metaphysics: All we need to know, he said, is that morality is, as a matter of historical fact, woven into the fabrics of mutual understanding that bind us to our communities and give structure to our lives.” In the London Review of Books, Jonathan Rée reviews Émile Perreau-Saussine’s biography of Alasdair MacIntyre.
- “Over the years, I learned that students had repeatedly attempted to file complaints about my classes.” In The New Yorker, Jeannie Suk Gersen describes the campus climate now.
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