The 60th annual Florida Folk Festival will be held Memorial Day Weekend at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs. The Festival began in 1953 under the direction of Sarah Gertrude Knott, and hasn’t skipped a year since, placing it among the longest continuously-running folk festivals in the country.
View of trick roper Danny Coflin performing with Thelma Boltin at the 1970 Florida Folk Festival - White Springs, Florida.
The Beers family performs at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs (ca. 1960s)
The Florida Folk Festival is a great way to interact with, and learn about music, art, traditional occupations, and foodways unique to the state of Florida. This year, festival goers can expect performances and workshops from Arlo Guthrie, John Anderson, Billy Dean, Frank Thomas, Doug Gauss, and Amy Carol Webb and a myriad of other musicians, storytellers, dancers and artisans.
In 1977, the Florida Folklife Program sponsored a series of free concerts by nationally renowned folk musicians at the Stephen Foster Center in White Springs. Included in the lineup were Jean Ritchie, the New Christy Minstrels, the Kingston Trio, Doc and Merle Watson, and Pete Seeger, who turned 93 on May 3. To celebrate Pete’s birthday, we’ll revisit his performance recorded 35 years ago in this month’s podcast.
Pete Seeger performing at the 1977 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.
Born in New York City, Pete Seeger learned the banjo in 1938, and worked with Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress. As a songwriter, his original repertoire included “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He also formed two influential groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, who sang labor anthems like “Which Side are You On?” as well as traditional numbers such as “Goodnight, Irene.”
During his extensive career, Seeger inevitably crossed paths with Florida folk artists. In 1956, he recorded for Folkways Records with the Washboard Band, which featured Florida Folk Heritage Award Winner William “Washboard Bill” Cooke. Not surprisingly, he also struck up a friendship with the Father of Florida Folk himself, Will McLean. The two performed together in 1963 at Carnegie Hall, and Will McLean was notably present for Seeger’s 1977 White Springs appearance.
Pete Seeger wrote about Florida in his music as well. “Delbert Tibbs” is an ode to the African-American poet who was wrongfully convicted of murder and rape in 1974 and sat on death row in Raiford State Penitentiary until January of 1977. The song helped procure justice for Tibbs, and in 1982, all charges against him were dismissed.
Today, at the age of 93, Pete Seeger is still performing, recording and promoting social justice. Let’s hand the microphone over to our mistress of ceremonies, Thelma Boltin, and sing along as Pete picks the banjo and strums his 12-string guitar.
Iconic folk singer, teacher and activist Pete Seeger turns 93 this year. Although he resides in New York, his work collecting and promoting folk music inevitably brought him to the state of Florida. In 1956, he recorded an album with Florida Folk Heritage Award winner William “Washboard Bill” Cooke. Later, he befriended the Father of Florida Folk himself, Will McLean.
This rendition of the McLean-penned “Osceola’s Last Words” was recorded May 21, 1977, at the Stephen Foster Memorial Center in White Springs, Florida. Stay tuned for a podcast of the complete performance later this month.
Vassar Clements was born April 25, 1928, in Kinard, Florida, but growing up in Kissimmee, where he first picked up the fiddle, earned him the nickname “Kissimmee Kid.” By the age of 21 he replaced Chubby Wise in Bill Monroe’s legendary Blue Grass Boys, and went on to work with artists as diverse as Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Grateful Dead, and Dave Holland, to name a few. Although he got his start playing in string bands, Clements performed masterfully in any setting, and developed his own distinct style which he referred to as “Hillbilly Jazz.”
Despite a demanding performance schedule, the Kissimmee Kid still returned to his home state, appearing at the Florida Folk Festival between 1997 and 2004. He often sat in with other Festival musicians, appearing alongside the likes of the Rice Brothers, John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson, and Billy Dean.
You can listen to a podcast featuring Clements’ final performance at the 2004 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.
Vassar Clements died of lung cancer on August 16, 2005, at the age of 77. In his 70 years of fiddle playing, he left behind a large body of classic recordings, unique compositions and undeniable influence. Let’s enjoy some of Vassar’s legacy with his rendition of the Chubby Wise tune “ Florida Blues,” recorded at the 1997 Florida Folk Festival, and “ Salt Creek,” from a 2001 performance with the Rice Brothers.
On April 18, 1982, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock just south of Florida City, on U.S. Highway 1, to catch illegal immigrants traveling to and from the Florida Keys. In response, after five days of ensuing traffic congestion and intrusive behavior by the Border Patrol, the people of Key West staged a mock secession from the United States and established the Conch Republic on April 23.
Mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, holding the flag of “ secession” of the Conch Republic (1982)
Since the 1930s, women have had an important role in documenting, preserving and celebrating Florida’s diverse cultural heritage. March is Women’s History Month, and in this podcast we will recognize and give voice to some of these women.
We begin with Eatonville native Zora Neale Hurston, who documented turpentine workers in Cross City, Florida as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Through her essay “Turpentine,” and field recordings, Hurston captured unique, first-hand accounts of day-to-day life in the turpentine camps, and the traditions that were an integral part of the workers’ culture.
Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen: Eatonville, Florida
During the same time Zora Neale Hurston was conducting fieldwork in Florida, Sarah Gertrude Knott founded both the National Folk Festival and the National Folk Festival Association in 1934; among the earliest advisors for these endeavors was Ms. Hurston. In 1952, under contract from the Stephen Foster Memorial Commission, Knott organized the first Florida Folk Festival and formed the Florida Folk Festival Association. She also served as director of the first two Florida Folk Festivals in 1953 and 1954.
Succeeding Sarah Gertrude Knott as director of the Florida Folk Festival from 1954-1965 was “Cousin” Thelma Boltin from Gainesville. In addition to sharing her gifts as a storyteller, organizer and emcee, Cousin Thelma—a title earned from her familial rapport with festival participants—scouted the state for folk artists to recruit for the festival. With the help of Barbara Beauchamp, Boltin established the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs as a valuable institution for sharing and celebrating the state’s varied traditions.
The success of the Florida Folk Festival brought the Stephen Foster Memorial Center a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Florida Folklife Program was instituted in 1976. Dr. Peggy Bulger was Florida’s first State Folklorist, founding and administering the Florida Folklife Program from 1976-1989. She created a large body of fieldwork which laid the foundations for the Florida Folklife Collection, and instituted valuable outreach programs such as apprenticeships, educational videos and publications, workshops and exhibits. Dr. Bulger went on to serve as the Senior Program Officer for the Southern Arts Federation, and later as director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.
Folklorist Peggy Bulger, right, conducting field work with quiltmaker Betsy (Mrs. Denard) Webb in White Springs, Florida.
With the establishment of the Florida Folklife Program came significant contributions from many other women. Working alongside Peggy Bulger was Brenda McCallum, who was instrumental in documenting and establishing contacts in Florida’s communities. She also played an important role in developing the Florida Folklife Program Archive, and today the American Folklore Society awards a prize in her honor to institutions and individuals working with folklife collections. Tina Bucuvalas served as the State Folklorist from 1996-2009, though her work in the Florida Folklife Program dates back to 1986 with the Miami-Dade Folklife Survey. She currently serves as Curator of Arts and Historical Resources for the City of Tarpon Springs, and recently edited The Florida Folklife Reader.
Folklorist Nancy Nusz interviewing Mr. Ramesch from the Mandeer Restaurant at the 1983 Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida
The list of women who have been integral to the research, documentation and teaching of Florida’s folk traditions continues with Lillian Saunders, Merri Belland, Doris Dyen, Nancy Nusz, Riki Saltzman, Jan Rosenberg, Debbie Fant, Andrea Graham, Laurie Sommers, Mary Anne McDonald, Teresa Hollingsworth, and Betsy Peterson. As part of the Florida Folklife Collection, the recordings in this podcast provide a unique look into some of the methods, philosophies and motivations behind the work of folklorists.
This podcast features songs, stories, speeches and interviews from Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Gertrude Knott, Thelma Boltin, Peggy Bulger, and Doris Dyen.
In the yearly bedlam of green dye, corned beef and cabbage, and pints of stout on the 17th of March, no celebration of Irish culture would be complete without acknowledging the country’s rich musical traditions. Ireland has birthed musicians in all genres from classical to pop, though it is perhaps best known for the traditional jigs, reels and ballads still heard in the pubs today.
James Kelly and Mick Moloney
Fiddler James Kelly and harpist Claire Fleming are two musicians who have shared traditional Irish music with the state of Florida. Born in Dublin, Kelly began learning the fiddle from his father, a renowned musician from County Clare, at the age of three. By the time he moved to Miami in 1984, he had toured the United States, Europe, Canada and South America, appeared on numerous recordings, and taught fiddle classes and workshops. In 2001, he won the Florida Folk Heritage Award.
This medley of reels accompanied by guitarist Mick Moloney at the 1987 Florida Folk Festival includes “The Crooked Road to Dublin,” “The Sligo Maid” and “The Boyne Hunt.” James Kelly is also featured in a podcast as well as the Folk section of the Florida Memory Audio page.
The Irish Cultural Association of Jacksonville brought harpist Claire Fleming from Dublin, and she performed on multiple occasions at the Florida Folk Festival. This rendition of “She Moved Through the Fair” was captured at the Old Marble Stage in 1996.
Hymn liner Troy Demps (left) and apprentice Brian Wright: Orlando (1995)
In recognition of Black History Month, we will highlight the uniquely African-American tradition of hymn lining.
The practice of lining hymns can be traced back to the 17th century when printed hymnals were scarce and many churchgoers—both slaves and whites—could not read.
A church elder or minister who could read would “line out,” or recite a hymn line by line, which in turn was repeated by the congregation. These hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” persisted and evolved in African-American churches after emancipation.
As Deacon at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, Troy Demps continues to practice hymn lining, and believes there is a more focused connection with the Holy Spirit among the congregation when the hymnal is set aside. Through the Florida Department of State’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program, he taught hymn lining in order to preserve the tradition and was awarded the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2003.
Will McLean of Tallahassee at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida
The music of Will McLean has been recorded and performed by dozens of artists, proving “The Father of Florida Folk” was not just a nickname for this prolific songwriter. His classic portrayals of Florida’s people and landscapes through songs such as “Seminole,” “Osceola’s Last Words,” and “Florida Sand” are still sung today, and every year, festival participants gather on the main stage for a grand finale of “Hold Back the Waters” to close out the Florida Folk Festival.
Born near Chipley, McLean spent his life traveling and writing songs inspired by his experiences in and love for the Sunshine State. He wrote his first song, “Away O’ee,” at the age of six, and went on to compose over 3,000 more songs and stories before his death in 1990. Will McLean received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1989, and in 1996 he was inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. His legacy continues through the Will McLean Foundation as well as an annual folk festival bearing his name.
The Florida Folklife Collection contains thousands of audio recordings from the 1930s to the present. These recordings include festival performances, fieldwork and radio programming from across the state. Every month focuses on an artist, genre, tradition or event in our monthly podcast series.
Please enjoy this month’s podcast featuring highlights from Will McLean’s appearances at the Florida Folk Festival.
Florida Memory is funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services.