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photo by Carl Van Vechten (1938)

Interchange – Zora Neale Hurston and the Blues


WFHB Blue Monday DJ and Blues guitarist Jason Fickel discusses Zora Neale Hurston with IU professor M. Cooper Harriss. The two look at the work of the Harlem Renaissance author, anthropologist, and folklorist in the context of Blues culture. We’ll hear Library of Congress recordings of Hurston singing as part of her folklore project, we’ll play blues songs from the 1930s that echo the themes and language of her influential works, and share selections of her novel, the masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Blues music and scenarios pervade Hurston’s work and give it such resonance…But, Hurston is also working out of the Book of Job which is where God appears in the whirlwind questioning “Who is this that darkens my counsel?”…[Their Eyes Were Watching God] is the most perfect novel written in American English and I’m willing to stand on Gatsby’s portico in my overalls and say that.

Another focus of the program tonight is the music of Memphis Minnie. Born Lizzie Douglas in 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana, Memphis Minnie, was a blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter whose recording career lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. She recorded around 200 songs, some of the best known being “Bumble Bee”, “Nothing in Rambling”, and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”.

In the program that follows Jason Fickel shares the way he connects the career of Memphis Minnie with that of her contemporary Zora Neale Hurston who was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida when she was three and Hurston often claimed it as her home town. In 1887 Eatonville was one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States. Cooper Harris tells how this fact affected Hurston’s response to desegregation laws later in the program.

M. Cooper Harriss is an Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University and is teaching a course this fall on Hurston. He is the author of Things Not Seen: Race, Religion, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (under contract with NYU Press, forthcoming 2016) and articles including “One Blues Invisible: Civil Rights and Civil Religion in Ralph Ellison’s Second Novel,” and “From Harlem Renaissance to Harlem Apocalypse: Just Representations and the Epistemology of Race in the ‘Negro Novel’.” He has written elsewhere on Nat Turner, Bob Dylan, Zora Neale Hurston, American and African-American biblical reception, and the contemporary musical genre known as Death Gospel.

Renee Reed reads selections from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942

Library of Congress folklore recordings of Zora Neale Hurston
“Nothing in Rambling” by Memphis Minnie
“Bumble Bee” by Memphis Minnie
“Pickin’ the Blues” by Memphis Minnie
“Hoodoo Lady” by Memphis Minnie
“Georgia Skin Blues” by Memphis Minnie
“Shady Lane Blues” by Leroy Carr
“When the Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe

Host & Producer: Doug Storm
Episode Producer & Interviewer: Jason Fickel, Blue Monday
Executive Producer: Joe Crawford

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