Sad Men

What Writers Can Learn from the Great Depression

Posts tagged Federal Writers Project

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Zora Neale Hurston Sings the Blues

During the Great Depression, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston traveled from Harlem to Florida to record folk songs for the Federal Writers Project’s Florida Folklife archive.

She left behind 18 amazing recordings, telling the story of individual folk songs and singing many of the tunes herself. I’ve linked to all the recordings below…

Follow this MP3 link to listen to her sing “Halimuhfack.” Here’s more about the recording: “A ‘jook’ song, learned on the East coast of Florida. After the song, Zora Neale Hurston describes how she collects and learns songs (including those she has published).”

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Vincent McHugh & the Metropolis

The poet and novelist Vincent McHugh joined the New York City Federal Writers Project as a technical editor in November 1936. The 32-year-old novelist only drank milkshakes, trying to settle some mysterious stomach aliment.

McHugh wrote the magnificent introduction to New York Panorama, “The Metropolis and Her Children.” I’ve reprinted the whole essay below—an ambitious trip through the history, culture, technology and statistics of 1930s New York City. That Depression-era photograph of a pretzel vendor was included in the book as well.

In his most sweeping passage, McHugh mentioned the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and many other epochal writers, but he ended with a perfect note, putting the city’s workers straight into the fabric of our literary history, treating workers not as subjects or metaphors, but as writers, the men and women writing the city, writing a way out of the Great Depression.

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Richard Wright & Forgotten Harlem

The young novelist Richard Wright joined the Federal Writers Project in 1937, working on New York Panorama, a book of essays about the city. Wright assumed control of the project’s work about Harlem. He took over for the scholar and poet, Claude McKay—another writer who found salvation in the Writers Project. Their work still stands in the “Portrait of Harlem” essay.

My favorite passage outlined long-forgotten dance-steps from 1930s Harlem:

Harlem’s boast that it is an area where new dance steps are created is indisputable. Just who initiated the “truck” is not known. Cora La Redd of the Cotton Club, “Rubber Legs” Williams, Chuck Robinson, and Bilo and Ashes have all put forward their individual claims. It is interesting to note that there are many kinds of “trucking,” the “picket’s truck,” the “politician’s truck,” the “Park Avenue truck,” the “Mae West truck,” and the “Hitler truck.” Among other contemporary Harlem dances is the “shim-sham,” a time-step featuring the “break” with a momentary pause; and the “razzle-dazzle,” which involves a rhythmic clapping of hands and a rolling of hips. The riotous “Lindy Hop” is a flying dance done by couples in which a girl is thrown away in the midst of a lightning two-step, then rudely snatched back to be subjected to a series of twists, jerks, dips and scrambles. All of these and many more can be seen in Harlem’s dance halls, at house parties, on beaches, and in the streets in summer to the tune of WPA Music Project bands.

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John Cheever Introduces the New York City Guide

In 1939, the Federal Writers Project published New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. It was part of a national government-funded bailout for writers that lasted from 1935 until early 1943.

The NYC edition includes amazing imagery from the Great Depression, like that gloomy picture of Union Square. I’ll share my favorite passages in coming months, but here’s a section from the introduction. According to David A. Taylor, the great novelist John Cheever wrote this passage.

Download a free copy of the FWP New York City Guide at this link.

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Maxwell Bodenheim Writes Greenwich Village

In the mid-1930s, Maxwell Bodenheim served a brief stint on the Federal Writers Project, composing a magnificent essay about Greenwich Village before tumbling into obscurity.

I’ve reprinted the whole essay below, but here’s the opening: “A nation, coming into its own artistically after an era of ruthless industrial expansion, of materialism and strait-laced conventionality, seized upon Greenwich Village as a symbol of revolt in the ferment of postwar years. The ‘Village’ was the center of the American Renaissance or of artiness, of political progress or of long-haired radical men and short-haired radical women, of sex freedom or of sex license dependent upon the point of view.”

You can download a free copy of the New York City Guide to read more and see more etchings from the 1930s.

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How to Talk Like a Depression-Era Jazz Musician

In 1938, the Federal Writers Project published New York Panorama, a sweeping and surreal glimpse at New York City during the Great Depression (including “Broadway Playground,” the photograph embedded above).

The book featured a long section about language in New York—exploring slang from jazz musicians around the city and defining words like “Dracula,” “long underwear boys,” “gutbucket” and “G-flat” for all us squares.

I’ve reprinted the section below, putting all the amazing slang in bold. You can also download a free eBook copy of the book.

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Brahms & The Great Depression

During one of the most chaotic moments of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration sponsored a Brahms festival in New York City.

The performances were delayed by massive demonstrations as writers, artists and musicians protested cuts in federal funds for arts projects.

While researching the Federal Writers Project, I assembled a free Spotify playlist collecting the Brahms music played at the festival—two hours of lonesome, gorgeous and seldom-heard music from the great composer.

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