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Hurston, and Presley, sing for 'Oxford'

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Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, but it became a classic of African-American literature only after it was reissued and rediscovered in 1978. It had been out of print for 30 years. This spring, the novel reached No. 18 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list after Oprah Winfrey adapted it into a TV movie.

Now Hurston, who died in 1960, joins some unusual company, including Elvis Presley, Al Green and Bessie Smith. All are featured in the annual music issue of The Oxford American, which bills itself as "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing."

Make that good listening. The summer issue, out this month, comes with a 29-track CD of songs related to the magazine's essays.

One of them is performed by Hurston, who studied anthropology at Barnard and survived the Depression by documenting and recording folk songs in Florida and Texas for the Federal Writers' Project.

Hurston called it "an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life." But it was dangerous work, notes Paul Reyes, the magazine's senior editor: "On some nights she collected songs through duets with men whose jealous women sought to cut her open. She carried a pistol, took no victims, but came awfully close to 'old club-footed Death.'"

In 1939, Hurston invited workers, musicians and grandmothers to record songs and stories in Jacksonville. As Reyes writes, "She prodded, choreographed, led a chorus, coached but finally unleashed her own bright performances."

One of a dozen songs she sang and recorded that day is on the Oxford CD: Crow Dance, a Bahamian dance tune that, as Reyes puts it, is "shaped by Zora's loud, high-pitched, diva-of-the-shower warbling."

Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff notes that "Those Yankees have John Updike, Richard Yates and Philip Roth, and I love 'em. But our writers can sing."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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