Blog #2: Digital Inspiration

Folk song collector Anne Warner recording Frank Proffitt playing guitar in the 1930s.
Folk song collector Anne Warner recording Frank Proffitt playing guitar in the 1930s.
Stetson Kennedy, Robert Cook (left) and Stetson Kennedy (center) documenting Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy, Ybor City, Florida, 1939.
Robert Cook (left) and Stetson Kennedy (center) documenting Edith Ogden-Aguilar Kennedy, Ybor City, Florida, 1939.

This week, our “Digital Tools for Historians” class was asked to look for inspiration for our digital project for this semester. My vision for my eventual thesis project about Florida folk music includes a digital component. While I have known for a while that I wanted to focus on Florida folk music, the thesis project has evolved over time. It was originally meant to be a traditional research paper, but it has now turned into a podcast series about Florida folk music during the 1930s. I will probably focus on the Works Progress Administration’s folk song collecting trips that were carried out in Florida during the Depression.

I have been interested in the WPA and the Federal Writers’ Project for a while. My interest in the WPA was solidified during my recent internship with the Florida Historical Society during which I organized the WPA Collection housed there and made a finding aid for it as well. While going through the vast materials, I was intrigued by the scale of folk song collecting that took place in Florida (and across the nation) during that time. The WPA folk music recordings could be the lens through which I can explore the story of Florida during the 1930s. I would like to emphasize the relationship between music and community, give a voice to the “common folk” of Florida through their music, and indicate the richness and diversity of folk music in Florida. Maybe I can even examine what life was like for Floridians during that difficult time that was fraught with social and economic changes.

Migrant workers returning home: Lake Harbor, Florida (1939)
Migrant workers returning home: Lake Harbor, Florida (1939)

I am a writer at heart; I love to write and I am more comfortable with writing a research paper than making digital projects. Still, I feel that the future of history entails increased, successful integration of digital tools into historical explorations. Historians can no longer hide in caves and write about history in a solitary manner. We have to approach the study of history in a way that allows us to better engage with the public. On that note, I would like to discuss a few websites that have inspired me this week. While researching the WPA in Florida, I stumbled upon a website called Living New Deal. The website allows the user to search state by state to view the legacies of the various WPA projects throughout the country during the Depression. The website even accepts user contributions. I would love to make a website that includes an interactive map that indicates the locations of folk songs collected in Florida by the WPA.

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While researching for this blog post, I also found that a folklorist named Laurie K. Sommers made an impressive website for the South Georgia Folklife Program. The website is close to what I would like to create for my digital thesis project on folk music in Florida. I want to make a series of podcasts and host them on a website in a similar manner. The site includes a radio station, photographs, historical information, and other materials pertaining to folklife in South Georgia.

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Stetson Kennedy once said in an essay called A Florida Treasure Hunt, “Whenever anyone asks me what it was like working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and recording Florida folk songs back in the 1930s for the Library of Congress, I tell them we were as excited as a bunch of kids on a treasure hunt.” I would like for my website to make the user feel like they are on a cultural and musical treasure hunt with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project folks such as Stetson, Alan, and Zora.

Back to the topic at hand, I like the interactivity and user experience of the websites I mentioned in this blog. The ease of navigation, photographs, audio files, interactive maps, and narrative come together well in those projects and attempt to educate the public about their topics. There are so many amazing digital websites out there about history that I have become lost in them this week. It is wonderful to see how well that history and digital tools go together, but it is also daunting because even great sites can get overlooked in the vast sea of history websites that exist. Here are some other notable interactive history websites I have recently found.

African American Migration Experience
Civil War Washington
Digital Harlem
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago
Interactive Soundscape of New York in the 1920s
RICHES Mosaic Interface

Edit: I also just found this website called The American Yawp, which calls itself a “Free and Online, Collaboratively Built American History Textbook”. The titles of the chapters are clickable and contain a lot of information about American history along with photographs and paintings.

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