The Jazz Influence on Their Eyes Were Watching God

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  • Topic: Jazz, Duke Ellington, Blues
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  • Published : May 13, 2006
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Strange Fruit
The Jazz Influence on Their Eyes Were Watching God

In the late 1930's, during the Harlem Renaissance, when Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was written, the sounds of jazz and blues music filled the air (Hurston). Revolutionary artists such as Duke Elington, Teddy Wilson and Bessie Smith became household names as African-Americans began to develop a reputation for themselves as musicians (Blackburn). Among these artists was Billie Holiday, "the first popular jazz singer to move audiences with the intense, personal feeling of classic blues, changing the art of American pop vocals forever (Billie)." It was not only musicians who were participating in this renaissance, there where painters, activists and writers as well (Harlem). These figures would pick up on each others art form, incorporating a bit of it into their own. It is in this way that the jazz which Zora Neale Hurston listened to and grew up around, made its way subtlety into her writing by adding a formulaic, rhythmic and melodic element to Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Rhythm and meter are most often associated with poetry and music, less often are these devices used in prose. Hurston breaks this mold by using various rhythmic devices in her writing, giving it a musical feel. The introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God uses a four beat sentence, with each beat divided into triplets; "Ships at a/ distance have/ every man's/ wish on board (Hurston)." This same pattern, common in blues, can also be found in the first line of Holiday's "Strange Fruit;" "Southern trees/ bear strange fruit/ Blood on leaves/ at the root (Bessie)." Examples such as this can be found throughout Their Eyes Are Watching God, not only in the narrorations but also in the dialogue. While reading Hurston's work one could tap ones foot along to the beat of the work and read as if it were a lyric.

The most popular way a jazz standard is performed is there is one simple melody...
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