Week 11. “Or Does it Explode?”: A Jazz Renaissance in Harlem and Paris

Week 11. “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” and the Great Depression

  • Required watching: Herbert J. Biberman, Salt of the Earth (1954) (Movie provided below)
  • Required reading: Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Key Terms 

  • Take the A Train
  • The decision to leave the South
  • Race riots
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Slumming
  • Exotic Harlem
  • The Great Migration routes
  • The Migrants
  • Claude McKay
  • Langston Hughes
  • Folklore
  • Rent Parties
  • Great Mississippi Flood of 1927
  • Themes in blues music
  • Mississippi Delta as a cultural epicenter
  • Crossroad Blues
  • Back Door Man
  • Great Depression Cinema Heroines
  • Dust Bowl
  • Migrant Mother

Required: Opening Song – Take the A Train 

Required: Introduction to Take the A Train 

Required: Harlem Renaissance Part 2

Required: The Migrants 

Required: Slumming in Harlem 

Required: The Blues, Enviorntemal Catastrophe, and American Culture during the Great Depression 

Lynching and Popular Culture

If you have time, I recommend you listen to the first ten minutes of this episode detailing the history of the song “Strange Fruit.” Trigger warning: references to sexual violence, prostitution, and racial violence.

REQUIRED FILM: Salt of the Earth 

This week we will watch and discuss our first required feature-length film. Salt of the Earth (1954) was released the same year as the school desegregation cases in the United States. It was almost impossible to find this film for over forty years because it was a blacklisted and banned film. The director, Herbert Bieberman, and the writer Michael Wilson, were victims of the red scare in Hollywood. Bieberman refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington DC. He was imprisoned because of this. They were accused of being communists and Soviet Union collaborators. The film was particularly suspect as it is a feminist, pro-Mexican American, pro-labor and collective organizing movie which was rare in the mid-1950s. They also cast real miners and their families in the film. The FBI investigated the film’s production and many conservative organizations pushed for its wholesale ban in the United States. While the film does move slow at times, it deploys beautiful low-budget cinematic techniques.

Thinking critically about historical films and movies:

You do not need to turn in a pre-precept or mini assignment this week, but please take detailed notes in accordance with this film watching guide to maximize our class discussion.

  • Most importantly, think about context: When was the movie created? Who directed it and what else have they directed? Who wrote it? Do you have a sense of audience reception at the time? What genre of film is this?
  • Narration: Does the film have voice-over narration? Is the film linear? Are there flashbacks? Think about how the story is constructed and what effect this has on the story.
  • Character names: Do character names reveal anything about the characters or the plot?
  • Cinematic techniques: Did the director use any reoccurring techniques in the film?
  • Costuming, makeup, and set design: What does the clothing and make up tell you about each character and their relationships with each other? What does the set look like and what does it tell you about the story? Why is the setting important in this movie?
  • Camera angles, speed, and composition: How is the position of the camera angle emphasizing or deemphasizing elements of the plot? How is speed and zoom used? What about framing? Does the camera pan or stay still? How does this impact your emotional reaction to the film?
  • Use of color: Is the film in black and white? Are there any color palettes used throughout the film? For example, does the movie have a warm, rosy glow or a darker, bluish hue? How does this set the mood for the film?
  • Music and sound: Does the soundtrack develop plot lines? What non-spoken sounds are important to the film? Is silence used as a cinematic tool and, if so, how? Think about the juxtaposition in sound and silence before and after the radio was confiscated in Salt of the Earth.
  • Correlatives: Does the director use metaphors to add another layer to the story or develop it in another way? Are there any objects in the film that somehow symbolizes a character’s development? A famous example of this is Holly Golightly’s refusal to name her stray cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
  • Dialogue and acting: How do characters communicate with each other? Did any quotes stick out to you? Why are they important?

Their Eyes Were Watching God Guided Reading Questions 

We will spend the second half of precept discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is an unusual choice for a Depression-era novel–the usual go-to in a history class would be Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath about the Dust Bowl and migration westward. Here, with Hurston, we get a very different story but still one about environmental catastrophe, class, race, and an epic journey. I want to give you a few notes about this book because it can be challenging. First, Zora Neale Hurston, like Alan Lomax, was a folklorist. She was trained at Barnard and Columbia University and was in Harlem during the “Renaissance,” but as a woman had a different relationship with the literary movement. During the Depression, she also worked for the WPA like Orson Welles. She was tasked with going down South and to Haiti to document black dialect, folkways, songs, dance, and mythology. Hurston was struck by all-black towns she encountered in the deep south and wanted to recreate this unique complex world she encountered in her literature and storytelling. While the narrator uses traditional English, Hurston wrote this novel’s dialogue with vernacular and heavily integrates black Southern dialect, rural phrases, metaphors, allegories, and stories. This can make the book (especially that opening chapter) quite confusing the first time you try to read it. To help you out, know that the first chapter is actually the “end” of the story. Janie is returning from her epic journey (which you will read about) to a town that is judging her return. She finds her best friend Phoebe and tells the story of what happened as a flashback along with the narrator. After you finish the book, if you go back and re-read the opening chapter it will make much more sense. 

As you read the book I want you to think critically about a few things: 

  • What is the role of dialect here? How is it adding to the story? Pull out an example to discuss. 
  • What do some of these metaphors mean? The cracked plate? The constant mention of mules? The peach tree? Tea Cake’s guitar? 
  • How does the tripartite of Logan, Jodie, and Tea Cake add to the narrative? What do they teach Janie? 
  • What do you learn of this all-black Depression-era world if you read this book as a historian? What do you learn of how this society is organized? 
  • What is going on environmentally in this story? What do you learn about race relations, regionalism, or class through diaster? 
  • What kind of journey or epic is this? 

Precept Agenda 

  • Found Object Presentations
  • Discussion of Salt of the Earth
  • Discussion of Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Discussion of Great Depression cinema or blues songs as time permits


Below you will find optional learning opportunities. I have also provided some of the multimedia I referenced in the lectures.

Great Depression Cinema 

In the Great Depression lecture, I discuss Gone With the Wind, Snow White, and the Wizard of Oz as Dust Bowl heroine stories that were relatable to millions of Americans who were out of work, displaced due to environmental catastrophe, and often going hungry. Watch these three clips. Think about how Snow White and her woodlawn friends are literally teaching children how to clean dust out of a home after a storm and what is going on with collective organizing. Think about what Scarlet O’ Hara’s poignant speech about starvation and determination meant to women who were defending and providing for families alone during the Depression while their husbands were off in labor camps. It’s hard not to get chills once you listen to it from that perspective and also gives insight into how this white supremacist film became so popular. Finally, listen to the lyrics in Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Imagine watching this scene as a child displaced by the Dust Bowl dreaming of a better life. “And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true/ Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me/ Where troubles melt like lemon drops…” All three are gorgeous pieces of cinema, but the emotional weight of what they meant during the Great Depression is profound.


Deep Dives on Josephine Baker and Marian Anderson

I asked three professor friends who are experts on performance to contribute to “The Show Must Go On” and help us explore the historical significance of some iconic female singers. I hope you enjoy the conversations we recorded.

Primary Sources Discussed 

Josephine Baker’s “Banana Dance” at Folies Bergere in Paris c1927

Josephine Baker in “Zouzou” (1934)

Duke Ellington & the Cotton Club Orchestra, “Echoes of the Jungle” (1931)

Professor Danielle FoslerLussier (Music) joins us to discuss Marian Anderson’s iconic performance at the Lincoln Memorial (1939)

Harlem in a Global Context 

Listen to this short podcast clip to learn about the “Red Summer” of 1919

05-1933-harlem-art-workshop-1024x743 06-1934-306-studio-1024x898-jacob-lawerence 10-1938-protest-by-wpa-artist-guild

Infographics of the Great Migration: How Many People Left the South for the North and West? When? Where Did They Go?

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12-9-2016-10-56-53-pm 12-9-2016-10-57-25-pm 12-9-2016-10-57-58-pm 12-9-2016-10-58-48-pm 12-9-2016-10-59-22-pm 26-1956-lawrence 36-1993-1995-migration


American Blues 

Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Rock ‘n’ Roll 

When you listen to this interview with NYU professor Maureen Mahon (Music), think about what Professor Mahon is arguing about the intergenerational transference of performance styles between black women and how that is refracted through Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.

A Bessie Smith Playlist to Listen to and Enjoy 

Here are the three blues songs I mention in lecture. First is Skip James, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.” Read the lyrics and think about how this song is representing the Great Depression.

Robert Johnson, “Crossroad Blues”

Howlin’ Wolf “Back Door Man” 

Howlin’ Wolf “How Many More Years”

Leadbelly, “Goodnight Irene”

Works Progress Administration Multimedia 

Directed by Orson Welles (War of the Worlds) the Federal Theatre Project under the WPA staged Shakespeare adaptations with all-black casts.

Archival footage of the Federal Theatre Project in Los Angeles shot by the Federal Government for newsreels



Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

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