It’s a sad commentary on biased people that the majority of Zora Neale Hurston’s writings for President Roosevelt’s Federal Writing Project for Florida never made it into the Florida guide. Politics and racism kept a lot of her work out of the public eye for a long time even thought she was one of the state’s best collectors of folklore. She saw better than most, I think, the value of old stories as they relate to a place.
By now, her expunged FWP writings have surfaced in a variety of places. Fortunately, most of them–such as Kristin G. Congon’s Uncle Monday and Other Florida Tales–credit Hurston with collecting these folktales in 1938 (or earlier). I mention Uncle Monday in my novel Eulalie and Washerwoman.
Go Gator and Muddy the Water, while an old book that grew out of Pamela Bordelon’s doctoral dissertation has been around for almost twenty years, it includes Hurston’s stories along with some meaningful commentary. It remains an excellent resource, and Bordelon’s essay offers helpful perspective.
Most readers remember Hurston as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and/or her posthumous novel Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo released in May. Both novels are masterpieces, I think. However, her range and her contribution to our understanding of our past is larger than these novels and can be found in her work as a collector of folklore.
I have found great inspiration and enjoyment from her stories.
While writing my two Florida folk magic novels, I suddenly became immersed in some of the dialect and slang that was popular when I was a child in the panhandle part of the state. If you lived somewhere else, you probably thought we talked funny. Truth is, we thought you talked funny.
A few examples. . .
Able Grable – 1940s’ slang for an attractive and available woman, based on the name of the actress Betty Grable, 1916-1973. Okay, this one isn’t Southern, more of of World War II expression.
Aunt Hagar – According to myth, Blacks are descendants of Abraham and Hagar and Whites are descendants of Abraham and Sarah, making Hagar the first ancestor of all African American slaves. This myth is behind the 1920s W. C. Handy/J. Tim Brymn blues song “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” (also called “Aunt Hagar’s Children”). You still hear Aunt Hagar mentioned sometimes.
Beelutherhatchee – An imaginary place. Seldom heard these days unless one’s referring to the home of the late Florida folklore collector Stetson Kennedy.
Big moose comes down from the mountain – Something important is happening, perhaps personal, perhaps judgement day. I haven’t hear this for ages.
Bogot people – Descendants of the Lower Creek Apalachicolas who sought refuge near present-day Blountstown, Florida when Indians were sent westward in the years following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal act of 1830. You’re more likely to come across this term in historical and cultural articles than everyday conversation.
Boiled Peanuts – Raw peanuts boiled for a while in salt water in their shells until they have a soft, Lima bean consistency. Used to be sold everywhere along highways in penny nail sacks. In the old days, these were called goober peas.
Chamber Lye – Urine used as a detergent. In folk magic, female urine brings luck in gambling, especially when it’s used to “feed” (adding various liquids to keep ingredients active and powerful) a mojo bag.
Chewing John – One of three roots named after the mythic John the Conqueror who was purported to be a Black slave who knew how to outwit and/or cast spells upon his master without getting caught. To say his name would protect a person from being hexed. Chewing John, Alpina galanga, is chewed like tobacco for luck in court cases. A hoodoo term.
Coast – Floridian’s word for “the beach” or “the shore.” The cops and rangers will arrest you if they catch you picking sea oats (see photo).
Cooper Book – A Sacred Harp tunebook first published by W. M. Cooper in 1902, and popular in the Florida Panhandle, Georgia, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. A 2012 revised edition is available.
Diddy-Wah-Diddy – A mythical town dreamt about by slaves and those conscripted into turpentine camps, chain gangs and orange grove labor in which ready-to-eat food presented itself to those who were hungry and sat on the curb waiting to be fed for free. Seldom used except in folk tales these days.
Dominicker – While the word generally refers to a breed of chicken, it’s an old pejorative term indicating a person of mixed blood, often used for an individual of African American and American Indian parentage.
Fat ’round de heart – Slang for “scared” or “worried.” A bit out of date.
Florida Water – A floral scented toilet water used by hoodoo practitioners for spiritual cleansing, the protection of a place or person, and for luck in gambling.
Floy Floy – Slang term for venereal disease that can also refer to trash talk. Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart, and Bud Green popularized the term in their 1938 jazz song “Flat Foor Floogie (with a floy floy)”
Four Thieves Vinegar – Purportedly originating in 15th century Italy as a preventive medicine, the varied recipes for this preparation were later adopted in magic for personal protection. Root doctors’ clients would drink it or put it in their bath water.
Goofer Dust – A mixture of ingredients, including graveyard dirt, snake skin and sulfur, used to harm or kill another person who walks through it or is hexed via a sachet. Places where goofer dust has been spread are said to have been goofered. The term is sometimes used to refer to hexes or hexed places in general. A hoodoo term.
Hoodoo – A varied system of folk magic primarily of African origin. Practitioners, also called conjurers or root doctors, often included Kabalistic and Christian influences, Native American and European herbal knowledge and a variety of other occult beliefs in work on behalf of their clients. Hoodoo is not a synonym for the Voodoo religion.
Hoyt’s Cologne – An inexpensive perfume that, in folk magic, was used as bring good luck in gambling. You can still buy it today, though dedicated conjurers prefer to make it from scratch.
Hush Arbor – A secret, out-of-the-way place where slaves would congregate to practice their religion, one that tended to combine Christian teachings with traditional African practices and beliefs. Many songs grew out of these meetings and were passed down as spirituals.
Jick – Whiskey, often moonshine.
Jick Head – A drunk.
Joe Moore – Pronounced, Joe Mow (JOMO), the term is used by some conjurers to refer to objects used as charms, often related to gambling or personal protection. The term has also been used as a synonym for MOJO and for conjure work in general.
Jook – Also known as a juke joint or a barrelhouse, a bar offering food, drink, dancing, gambling and socializing. The word rhymes with “took.”
Judas eye – A belief that a conjurer can harm a person by looking at him.
Mister Charlie – An out-of-use pejorative term used by African Americans. Originally, it meant any white man. Later it came to refer to whites in power.
Mullet – A Floridian’s view of this fish showed where he or she was coming from, class-wise. Upper class people considered it a bait fish to be cut up for deep sea fishing trips. The rest of us thought it was very tasty and ordered it at restaurants down on the coast with slaw and a plate full of hush puppies.
Rosin Baked Potatoes – Potatoes cooked in a large pot of rosin, usually outdoors over a cook fire. When they rise to the top, they’re done. We’d wrap them up in twists of brown paper cut from old grocery store sacks when we took them out of the pot.
Scrub Chicken – An old wiregrass region name for the gopher tortoise which was once hunted for food. During the Depression, the tortoise was also called a “Hoover Chicken.” The tortoise lives primarily in pine woods habitats and is considered endangered. According to Florida folklore, the gopher tortoise resulted when the Devil tried to make a turtle to impress God, the result being a land-based reptile without the turtle’s love of water.
Sculpin – One name of the Scuppernong grape, a variety of Muscadine found in the Southern Unite States. The light, greenish bronze grapes work well in baked goods, jelly and wine. As they say, all Scuppernongs are Muscadines, but all Muscadines are NOT Scuppernongs.
Shine – Moonshine.
Shoo-shooing – Whispering.
Shug – An endearment meaning “sugar.” Rhymes with “hood.”
Steppin’ back on my abstract – Collected in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men as “Standing in my tracks/stepping back on my abstract,” meaning standing one’s ground. Haven’t heard this for years.
Squinch Owl – Screech Owl.
Sugar Cane – Used to be easy to get at street corner vendors. Kids would buy short stalks and chew on them for hours; or, you can get the juice in small Dixie cups. Harder to find these days than boiled peanuts.
Titi – A flowering plant, Cyrilla racemiflora, also called Swamp Titi, Black Titi and Myrtle, that grows in dense thickets in pine woods, swamps, wet prairies and bogs. Pronounced tie-tie.
Torreya – A rare and highly endangered conifer found along the Apalachicola River near Bristol, Florida. Also called “Stinking Cedar,” the tree was said to be the same gopher wood from which Noah’s ark was built. For years, Bristol resident E. E. Callaway promoted the area as the actual Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden trail is in the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.
Trick – A form of natural magic, often consisting of a spell with a powder or symbol, that’s placed (laid down) where the intended victim is expected to walk. A tricked place is a spot that has been hexed in some way. A hoodoo term,
Tush hawg – Used in various ways, the word often refers to a rough and tumble man. Haven’t heard this for years.
Two-Toed Tom – A huge, legendary alligator feared by residents along the Alabama-Florida border in the early 1900s, and said to be still on the prowl many years later. It was reportedly fourteen feet long, suspected of eating cattle and mules, and assaulting women. His left front foot was missing all but two of its toes, the result of being caught in a steel trap.
Swamp Booger – North Florida’s version of big foot.
If you grew up in the South, but outside of Florida, you probably heard some of these words and expressions as well. But, I’ll always associate them with my childhood.
This post first appeared on “The Sun Singer’s Travels”
“If you know or happen upon a story, record it in some way. As a voice memo on a phone. In written form. Do the same with your friends and relatives. And archive the stories or send them to someone who keeps folklore records. Because this preservation is vital to ensure that we do not lose our old traditions or beliefs. Never assume that everyone knows why a particular road, or field, is called by a certain name. If you know the history, record it. Otherwise you do not know what may be lost in the future.” – Jon Buckeridge in “Once Upon a Time: Folklore and Storytelling” in The Folklore Podcast
Folklore is easy to lose. Mainstream history often runs roughshod over local stories. The stories themselves may have been passed from person to person to the extent that details have been lost or exaggerated or even changed. Yet, if the participants and places aren’t famous, the stories may be forgotten.
As writers, we can help keep those stories alive by writing down those we know and disseminating them in nonfiction or as the basis of our fiction. These stories can add a lot of depth to a novel.
When my wife and I moved to a small Georgia town in 2002, the subdivision we chose was once part of a farm. The subdivision was named after one of the city fathers; his name can be found in local and county histories, and in walking tour notes. The subdivision’s streets were named after members of the farm family. We were the first owners of a house that had been built the year before. You could see in the property’s deeds who owned it before we did. But you won’t find the links there between the street names and the family members’ names.
Long-time residents had known the family, so in time we learned where the street names came from. The developer/builder also knew this. We moved out two years ago. I wonder how many people in that neighborhood today know where their street’s name came from. I don’t recall the homeowners association documents including any neighborhood history. In a brief Google search, I can’t find that information on line.
I’m sure somebody in town still knows it. But have they written it down? If not, the information will disappear in time along with any remembrances people had of the family members and what they did or where they ended up. Quite likely, none of them are famous and, to my knowledge, they didn’t factor into any city or county news stories of note. But in a lot of locales, the names of streets have histories connected to them that might make for good background information in a short story of a novel.
“Stories are the very basis and heart of folklore. Certainly, when you look back at cultures that did not have a recorded history per se, or who relied on outsiders to chronicle their histories, the essence of them is held in the stories. Without those stories they will die. We need people with passion and drive to not let them die. For Jon, it does not matter whether you believe that the supernatural elements of these stories are real; what matters is that the stories, the culture and the history, and heritage of those who call a place home is preserved and held up for future generations. It is something that every person has a right to.” – Podcast Introduction.
Many of us remember our parents and grandparents telling us family stories when we were young. We remember some of them, but unless we wrote them down, we’ve probably forgotten most of them. Too bad: that’s the kind of information that can be passed down to children and grandchildren and, when it figures into the local history and development of a town or county, it quite possibly should end up in local history books, short stories, and novels.