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Zora Neale Hurston and the Polk County Blues

The writer travels to a Florida lumber camp in search of “that which the soul lives by.”


In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Polk County, Florida to collect folklore. She ended up at a lumber camp, where African Americans from around the South worked long hours in difficult conditions. By the time she left — in a hurry, at knifepoint — she had collected a slew of stories that would become the first book of African American folklore written by an African American. For Hurston, these tales would provide endless inspiration, breathing life into her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Where Trees Don't Grow

Zora Neale Hurston sings "Mule on the Mount," one of the most widely-distributed work songs in the country. Courtesy Herbert Halpert 1939 Southern States Recording Expedition (AFC 1939/005), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

There were a lot of ways to die in the lumber camps of Polk County. On the job, there were snakes, alligators and — most dangerous of all — the trees themselves. A man might be chest-high in swamp water and trying to keep his balance on slimy ground, when a 150-foot cypress tree ignored the path loggers intended and crashed down where it pleased, creating what one researcher described as a “domino effect from hell.” Or, maybe the tree was safely felled but slipped when they tried to hoist it onto the train car. If some unlucky man happened to be in the tree’s way, the train would come back into the camp early and everyone who heard the whistle blow knew that something was wrong.

Off the job, the camp was even more deadly. White overseers didn’t hesitate to use force against the majority black workforce, nor did local police. Sometimes it was the law that put laborers in camps in the first place. Tiffany Patterson, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, writes about how debt peonage, outlawed by Congress in 1867, continued to supply a large portion of the labor force in lumber camps up until World War II. In the post-Reconstruction South, black men (and occasionally others) could be arrested and fined for spitting on the sidewalk or simply not having a job — the so-called crime of vagrancy. If a man couldn’t pay, his fine could be bought by a lumber company, where he’d labor until his debt was settled. Other camp residents were real criminals — convicted or fugitive — who carried knives and weren’t afraid to use them.

Men load pine logs onto a flatcar in Florida ca. 1920s. State Archives of Florida

“It was rough,” says Patterson. “They were brought there by violence and then violence is the everyday.”

For her book, Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life, Patterson traveled to Polk County, Florida, where Hurston conducted anthropological fieldwork in the late 1920s. A former resident of the Everglades Cypress Lumber Company took Patterson to the grounds of the sawmill camp in Loughman. The land had been returned to forest except for one patch, covered in a mound of “chalk-white earth, unlike any dirt [Patterson] had seen before.” This was where local people believed the bodies of those who tried to escape were buried.

Mules and Men, the fruit of Hurston’s folklore-gathering fieldwork, has been criticized for ignoring the brutal reality of black laborers in the South. But Patterson says that wasn’t Hurston’s objective. “She’s trying to show the lived experience. In their living, they were creating a vibrant culture and a beautiful language.”

Turpentine workers gamble for cigarettes on payday in Florida ca. 1930s. Hurston visited turpentine camps in Cross City for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939. State Archives of Florida

The language itself was of utmost importance for Hurston, who often wrote her fiction in black vernacular. In his afterword for the book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes, “It is this concern for the figurative capacity of black language, for what a character in Mules and Men calls ‘a hidden meaning, jus’ like de Bible… de inside meanin’ of words’ that unites Hurston’s anthropological studies with her fiction.”

Hurston herself said she wanted to explore “that which the soul lives by.” By the time she left the Everglades Cypress Lumber Company — in a hurry, at knifepoint — she had collected a slew of stories about mules and men, men and men, and men and women. The first book of African American folklore written by an African American is a catalogue not of the ways people died but of the ways they lived.

Lying Up a Mess

“John Henry” performed by Joe Brown and Lonnie Thomas at the Raiford Penitentiary in Florida. Courtesy John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip (AFC 1939/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress


Zora Neale Hurston photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1938. State Archives of Florida

Zora Neale Hurston cruised into Polk County in a shiny gray Chevrolet in January of 1928. She was 37 (though she made a habit of lying about her age), a recent graduate of Barnard College, now working towards a graduate degree in anthropology. This was her second trip to the South to collect folklore, having been unsuccessful the year before.

Born and raised in the black town of Eatonville in northern Florida, Zora had hoped to view the tales of her childhood through the “spyglass of anthropology.” But doing so proved harder than she’d imagined. Though she quickly learned to drop the “Barnardese” she’d acquired in college, she struggled to strike the delicate balance between native-you-could-trust and anthropologist-who-keeps-her-distance. Moreover, the rigorous methodologies imposed by Hurston’s teacher, the world-famous anthropologist Franz Boas, often clashed with her own literary ambitions.

Financed by the wealthy philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, whose support, while not without conditions, gave Zora more intellectual leeway—the young anthropologist was making her second attempt. Newly inspired, she was ready to “collect like a new broom.”

Crossing the county line, Zora came upon the Everglades Cypress Lumber Company. Ignoring multiple “private property” signs, she rolled in. A woman named Babe Hill pointed her towards a boarding house run by her mother. Zora learned later that Babe shot her husband to death on Christmas of 1926. She was sent to jail but released after a few months. “Negro women are punished in these parts for killing men, but only if they exceed the quota,” Zora remarks dryly. “I don’t remember what the quota is. Perhaps I did hear, but I forgot.”

An unidentified lumber mill in Florida in the early 20th century. Florida State Archives of Florida

There was no doubt about it — Polk County was tough. But, as one man told her, it was also where “de water drink lak cherry wine” and “they really lies up a mess.” Lying, as Zora knew, meant telling stories; she’d come to Polk County looking for the biggest liars around.

What she found was, as Patterson puts it, “a diverse community of honest workers, family men, fugitive murderers, knife-wielding good-time girls, Christian mothers (also sometimes wielding knives), hard-living gamblers, jackleg preachers, and hoodoo charlatans.”

At first, Hurston (who does not carry a knife) is kept politely at a distance. After she befriends Babe’s son, Cliffert Ulmer, he explains why. Hurston’s shiny gray Chevrolet is too fancy for these parts; the workers think she must be a revenue officer or some kind of detective. “And since most of them were fugitives from justice or had done plenty time,” Hurston wrote, “a detective was just the last thing they felt they needed on that ‘job.’”

The timber dock at the Putnam Lumber Company in Shamrock, Florida in 1929. State Archives of Florida

Hurston thinks quick and says that she too, is a fugitive from justice — a bootlegger wanted in Miami with the law hot on her tail. “Bootleggers,” Hurston reasoned, “always have cars.”

The ploy works. The men drop their suspicions — but they still don’t share their stories. Only when Hurston sings “John Henry” at a pay-day party is she brought into the fold. The song, which she’d learned in Eatonville, tells the story of the famous African American folk hero, a “steel-driving man” who drills holes into rock to make way for railroad tunnels. Facing the encroachment of modern technology, John Henry races a jackhammer in a drilling contest; he wins — only to die from exhaustion. “I had to prove that I was their kind,” Hurston wrote. “‘John Henry’ got me over my second hurdle.’”

Having passed the test, Hurston is invited to go out with the swamp gang, who “lied a plenty while they worked.” Dick Willie, the “shack rouser,” sings to wake up the camp.

Zora Neale Hurston sings “Wake Up, Jacob,” which she learned at the Everglades Cypress Lumber Company in Polk County. Courtesy Herbert Halpert 1939 Southern States Recording Expedition (AFC 1939/005), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

But when the swamp gang gets to their meeting place, the train that usually takes them to the forest has had business elsewhere. Instead of giving them the day off, the swamp boss tells the men to make for the mill, where they might be of use. This starts the men off on the topic of mean bosses they’ve known. Zora delights in documenting their creative jibes. A mine owner is so mean he “wouldn’t give God an honest prayer without snatching back ‘Amen’”; a road boss is so mean “he laid off de hands of his watch.”

One of Hurston’s anthropological innovations in Mules and Men was to tell folktales in context. They do not come from the fictional mouth of an Uncle Remus but belong to a time, a place and an individual. And so it is as the men walk reluctantly to the mill that they begin to talk about John, a slave admired for his ability to outwit his master and get out of working — for the day or forever.

Inside the Wilson Cypress Company mill in Palatka, Florida ca. 1920s. State Archives of Florida

In one story, John is sent to capture a bear that has been stealing corn from “Ole Massa.” John manages to grab hold of the bear’s tail while the bear chases after him. John “couldn’t let go of de bear’s tail, do de bear would grab him in de back,” so they run around in a cartoonish circle the whole night. Eventually they both get so tired they start walking. Waking up, Ole Massa sees the spectacle and tells John he’ll grab the bear while John goes for help. But John has other ideas; he staggers to the grass, where he sits fanning himself. Ole Massa is not pleased.

John, you better g’wan git help or else I’m ginter turn dis bear aloose.
Turn ‘im loose, then. Dat’s whut Ah tried to do all night long but Ah couldn’t.

We’ll never know if the bear got Ole Massa, but today Hurston is credited by scholars as the first to record the John tales. Unknown outside black communities, the John tales were central to black folklore. In her introduction to Mules and Men, Hurston marvels at the tales she heard as a child:

How even the bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John — not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folklore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil.

While culturally distinct, John cuts a familiar folkloric figure. Cheryl Wall, an English professor at Rutgers University, compares him to the Rabbit, a well-known trickster in the folktales of African-Americans, Native Americans and others. “The trickster is important for marginalized people,” says Wall. “These people aren’t on an even playing field; they deceive in order to get something closer to equality.

Turpentine, made from the resin of pine trees was a huge industry in Florida. Hurston visited turpentine camps in Cross City for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939. State Archives of Florida

Sometimes that means getting freedom itself. In another story the men tell on the way to the mill, Ole Massa leaves for a trip to “Philly-Me-York” and John throws a giant party. Unfortunately, Old Massa only went one train stop before turning around to see what John was doing behind his back. When he finds out, he is furious and decides to hang John. Before the rope goes around his neck, John speaks with his friend Jack.

Ole Massa is gointer hang me under that persimmon tree. Now you get three matches and get in the top of the tree. Ah’m gointer pray and when you hear me ast God to let it lightening Ah want you to strike matches.

Ole Massa asks if he has any last words; John says he’d like to pray.

So John knelt down. “O Lord, here Ah am at de foot of de Persimmon tree. If you’re gointer destroy Old Massa tonight, with his wife and chillun and everything he got, lemme see it lightnin’.”

Jack up the tree, struck a match. Ole Massa caught hold of John and said: ‘John, don’t Pray no More.

John said, “Oh Yes, turn me loose so Ah can pray. O Lord, here Ah am tonight callin’ on Thee and Thee alone. If You are gointer destroy Ole Massa tonight his wife and chillun and all he got, Ah want to see it lightnin.

Jack struck another match and Ole Massa started to run. He give John his freedom and a heap of land and stock. He run so fast that it took a express train running at the rate of ninety miles an hour and six months to bring him back, and that’s how come niggers got they freedom today.

In this case, John’s lie is an act of resistance that allows him to escape an unjust system. The story itself takes part in the “dissident political culture,” described by Patterson, “embodied in the language of rural workers and migrants in the South in the 1920s and 1930s.” Another powerful example of that culture is in a story told by a man named Joe Wile. This time, John is in the opposite of trouble; he has saved Ole Massa’s children from drowning. Ole Massa is so thankful he tells John he will set him free. As John starts down the road, Ole Massa calls out to him.

John, de children love yuh.”


“John, I love yuh.”


“And Missy like yuh!”


“But ‘member, John, youse a nigger.”


Fur as John could hear ‘im down de road he wuz hollerin’, “John, Oh John! De children loves you. And I love you. De Missy like you.”

John would holler back, “Yassuh.”

“But ‘member youse a nigger, tho!”

Ole Massa kept callin’ ‘im and his voice was pitiful. But John kept right on steppin’ to Canada. He answered Ole Massa every time he called ‘im, but he consumed on wid his bag.

John agrees with Ole Massa to protect himself, but by walking away he is saying just the opposite. The swamp gang may not have been enslaved, but they were exploited — and they knew it. “Embedded in their jokes, embedded in their arguments, is a consciousness that we’re living in a harsh world,” says Dr. Patterson. Also alive in their stories is a sense of their own humanity; the world might try to define you, but you know who you are.

In the end, the men don’t need to lie to get out of work; the saw mill boss dismisses them. Seizing the day, they decide to go fishing.

Zora The Jook.jpeg

Behold the Rib

Zora Neale Hurston sings “Uncle Bud,” a social song not sung in front of “respectable women.” Courtesy Herbert Halpert 1939 Southern States Recording Expedition (AFC 1939/005), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

All her life, Zora Neale Hurston feared that marriage would compromise her independence and ambitions. On and off the page, she wrestled with how equality between man and woman could be achieved. By the time she got to the lumber camp in Loughman, she was nearly through the first of her three marriages. “I am going to divorce Herbert as soon as this is over,” she wrote her friend, the poet Langston Hughes. “He tries to hold me back and be generally obstructive so I have broken off relations since early Jan. and that’s that.”

In Mules and Men, an argument for gender equality is made by an itinerant preacher passing through the lumber camp. Flanked by two female followers, the “stump-knocker” tells the story of Eve’s creation from one of Adam’s ribs.

Brothers, if God Had taken dat bone out of man’s head

He would have meant for woman to rule, hah

If he had taken a bone out of his foot,

He would have meant for us to dominize and rule.

He could have made her out of back-bone

And then she would have been behind us.

But, no, God Amighty, he took de bone out of his side

So dat places de woman beside us;

Hah! God knowed his own mind.

Behold de rib!

While the preacher’s vision is simple and straightforward, gender relations in the lumber camp were anything but. On one hand, women were oppressed and abused by words and fists. The men revel in the tired trope of a woman who nags, demands and generally complicates the free and easy male lifestyle; “Well you know what dey say,” an older gentleman cracks, “a man can cackerlate his life till he get mixed up wid a woman or git straddle of a cow.” Another man prefers domestic violence to prolonged argument: “If a man kin whip his woman and whip her good; alright, but when they don’t do nothin’ but fight it makes my stomach turn.” And it is taken for granted by these men — who work exhausting 12 hour days — that black women work even harder. One story Hurston records, a variation on Pandora’s box, acknowledges the burden, but blames it on the women themselves.

On the other hand, the female population of the lumber camps enjoyed a certain freedom denied their middle-class and upper-class counterparts. “The frontier-like conditions of the camps leveled the playing field between men and women,” writes Patterson. This was especially true at the jook joint, where “women lived outside the boundaries of traditional marriage, the constraints of ladylike behavior and the authority of the church.” Not only are they freer, they also wield authority. “Ah got de law in my mouf,” more than one woman can be heard to say.

While most of the storytellers in Hurston’s book are men, there are notable exceptions — none more so than Big Sweet, who is not only free and autonomous, but powerful. Described as “a whole woman and half of a man,” Big Sweet rules the camp with a sharp tongue and a sharper knife, intimidating even the white camp boss. She herself is fearless. “I knew that Big Sweet didn’t mind fighting; didn’t mind killing and didn’t too much mind dying,” Hurston wrote.

But, as her name suggests, Big Sweet’s toughness is only half the story. When the swamp gang goes fishing, Big Sweet joins the expedition. As they walk through the forest, one man complains that he hears no birds. “Nobody never sees no mockin’ bird on Friday,” Big Sweet says. “They ain’t on earth dat day.” She goes on to explain why:

Once There was a man and he was very wicked. He useter rob and steal and he was always in a fight and killin’ up people. But he was awful good to birds and mockin’ birds was his favorite. This was a long time ago before de man first started to buildin’ de Rocky Mountains. Well, ‘ way after while somebody kilt him, and being he had done lived so bad, when he died he went straight to hell.

De birds all hated it mighty bad when they seen him in hell, so they tried to git him out. But the fire was too hot so they give up--all but de mockin’ birds. They come together and decided to tote sand until they squenched de fire in hell. So they set a day and they all agreed on it. Every Friday they, totes sand to hell. And that’s how come nobody don’t never see no mockin’ bird on Friday.

It is fitting that Big Sweet tells a story about friendship and loyalty; her friendship and loyalty save Hurston from a gruesome fate after she becomes the target of a jealous woman, who thinks Hurston is after her love interest. “Neb’ mind ‘bout ole Lucy. She know if she scratch yo’ skin Ah’ll kill her so dead till she can’t fall. They’ll have to push her over” Big Sweet says. Still, the situation reaches a boiling point; Hurston and Big Sweet are at the jook when Lucy arrives, knife in hand.

Stop dat music,” she yelled without moving. “Don’t vip another vop till Ah say so! Ah means tuh turn dis place out now. Ah got de law in mah mouf.”

So she started walking hippily straight at me. She knew I couldn’t get out easily because she had me barred and she knew not many people will risk running into a knife blade to stop a fight. So she didn’t have to run. I didn’t move but I was running in my skin. I could hear the blade already crying in flesh. I was sick and weak. But a flash from the corner out ten feet off and Lucy had something else to think about besides me. Big Sweet was flying at her with an open blade and it was Lucy’s time to try to make it to the door. Big Sweet kicked her somewhere about the knees and she fell. A doubled  razor flew thru the air very close to Big Sweet’s head. Crip, the new skitter man, had hurled it. It whizzed past Big Sweet and stuck in the wall; then Joe Willard went for Crip. Presley punched me violently and said, “Run you chile! In and ride! Dis is gointer be uh nasty ditch.

Hurston, “in the car in a second and in high just too quick,” fled the camp and headed to New Orleans, where she continued her folklore gathering. The Everglades Cypress Company would close down not long after, but Hurston’s literary career was just beginning. The stories she collected at Loughman were published in Mules and Men in 1935. The people she met there would influence her for years to come.

Big Sweet in particular, became a sort of muse. In the mid-1940s, Hurston wrote Polk County, a play that takes place at a sawmill camp. The heroine is a powerful, fearless, loyal woman named Big Sweet (Hurston often didn’t bother to change names). Professor Cheryl Wall also sees echoes of Big Sweet in Janie, the leading lady of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie is middle class, more privileged and polished than Hurston’s lumber camp Medea. But Janie abandons the trappings of her comfortable life for work camps in the Everglades. In the muck, Janie “got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest. One of them is her own.

Zora Through the forest.jpeg

That Which The Soul Lives By

Zora Neale Hurston sings “Let the Deal Go Down,” a gambling song she learned at a turpentine camp in Florida. Courtesy Herbert Halpert 1939 Southern States Recording Expedition (AFC 1939/005), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

After Zora Neale Hurston dropped her Barnardese, she never picked it up again, taking pride in having “the map of Dixie on [her] tongue.” Not everyone approved. Forty years ago, Dr. Wall interviewed a woman who was Hurston’s classmate when she attended Howard University. “She said that after Hurston did her fieldwork, she went backward,” says Wall.

For an educated, middle-class black woman, Hurston’s linguistic realignment was regressive. Some members of the black community felt the same way about folklore itself. “For people who were interested in respectability, folklore was difficult,” says Wall. There are many things in Mules and Men that the leaders of the NAACP would not have wanted emphasized.”

In 1935, Hurston went with Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle on a recording expedition to Florida, Georgia and the Bahamas. She is pictured here in Belle Glade, Florida, probably outside of a recording site. Courtesy Library of Congress

But Hurston’s commitment to “the folk” was unwavering. She was convinced that great art came from the “Negro farthest down.” This was, after all, the culture that gave birth to the blues. You could not depend on the educated for poetry — unless the poet was Hurston’s friend Langston Hughes, who similarly drew on the experiences of working-class African Americans. Hurston read his poetry collection Fine Clothes for the Jew aloud at the lumber camp. The book had been called “trash” by Black critics but became known as “de party book” in Loughman. “They got the point and enjoyed it immensely,” Hurston wrote Hughes in 1928. “So you are really a great poet for you truly represent your people.”

What might Big Sweet have thought of Hurston’s Polk County or Their Eyes Were Watching God? We can only imagine. The Big Sweets of the world left few written records. But that didn’t stop Dr. Patterson from trying to find her. In Eatonville, she met a pastor who thought he knew someone who knew Big Sweet’s real name. Patterson, a cash-strapped graduate student at the time, never got to that someone. In the end, we may never know Big Sweet’s real name — but thanks to Zora Neale Hurston, we have her stories.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 2004.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Kaplan, Carla. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Anchor Books/Random House, Inc., 2002.

Patterson, Tiffany Ruby. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

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