Gospel to Go: Circuit Riders on the Florida Frontier

It’s a cool Sunday morning in the sandy scrub of North Florida, with dew still on the ground and the sun just getting up over the trees. It’s 1847. Church is about to start, but it’s nothing like what most of us would think of when we think of church today. There is no church building; there’s only an arbor to shield the worshipers from the sun, a few crude benches, and a space at the front for the preacher. Moreover, the preacher arrives on his horse just before the service is to begin, because he does not live in the same community as his congregants. In fact, this is only one of half a dozen settlements he will visit in the course of a month.

Portrait of Rev. James Holland of Leon County, a circuit riding minister (circa 1880s).

Portrait of Rev. James Holland of Leon County, a circuit riding minister (circa 1880s).

This was the experience of worshipers who were ministered to by circuit riders, preachers who traveled from place to place offering religious services to settlers in far-flung corners of the Florida frontier. Sometimes called “saddlebag preachers,” these ministers typically traveled on horseback or sometimes in a wagon if the roads permitted. The communities they served comprised a “circuit,” sometimes with a permanent church headquarters in one of the larger towns. In the territorial and early statehood periods, with transportation difficult and communities spread far apart, circuit ministries were an efficient way of reaching the population. Circuit riding is particularly associated with the Methodist faith, although other denominations have used similar methods to reach their followers at various times.

Rev. Dwight F. Cameron, Jr. with his horse and buggy. Cameron was a circuit riding minister in Volusia County in the early twentieth century (1916).

Rev. Dwight F. Cameron, Jr. with his horse and buggy. Cameron was a circuit riding minister in Volusia County in the early twentieth century (1916).

The services at each station on the circuit might take place in a private home, a public building like the local courthouse, or under a “brush arbor,” a humble and temporary shelter that could be erected and expanded quickly. Later, as many communities expanded and their families became more prosperous, permanent church buildings began replacing the temporary brush arbors of earlier years. Better roads also made it easier for families living far away from established churches to come into town to worship. Over time, the circuit rider began to disappear as ministers were appointed for individual churches.

The United Methodist Church of Middleburg in Clay County, with congregants outside. The church was originally built in 1845. The photo dates to the 1880s.

The United Methodist Church of Middleburg in Clay County, with congregants outside. The church was originally built in 1845. The photo dates to the 1880s.

The concept of open-air “camp meetings” and other religious services is still an attractive one for many, however, and modern versions still appear today. As a nod to the significance of this old Floridian tradition, several reenactments of a typical brush arbor church service have been performed at the annual Florida Folk Festival over the years.

Reenactment of a brush arbor church service at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (circa 1960s).

Reenactment of a brush arbor church service at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (circa 1960s).

What’s the oldest church in your county? Did you know that Florida Memory has digitized the records of a WPA survey of more than 5,500 of the state’s churches? Visit the WPA Church Records collection, and search the Florida Photographic Collection to see if we have pictures of any of the churches in your community!

 

 

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Pete Seeger, folk music legend and activist, died January 27, 2014, at the age of 94.

Born in New York City, 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.

Part 1
[audio:http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/memory/collections/folklife/mp3/podcasts/seeger_part1.mp3|titles=Pete Seeger|artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3
More Info: Catalog Record

Intermission

Part 2
[audio:http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/memory/collections/folklife/mp3/podcasts/seeger_part2.mp3|titles=Pete Seeger|artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3
More Info: Catalog Record

Mariachi Jalisco

Florida is home to immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), this series of blog posts features music brought to Florida from throughout the Hispanic world.

Mariachi Jalisco is an aptly named band, as Mariachi music originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco. This recording of the band comes from the Metro-Dade Folk Arts Survey conducted in 1986 by folklorists Tina Bucuvalas, Nancy Nusz, and Laurie Sommers in order to identify folk arts and folk artists for the 34th Annual Florida Folk Festival.

Members of Mariachi Jalisco performing at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida during the Traditions Festival, Miami, 1986

Members of Mariachi Jalisco performing at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida during the Traditions Festival, Miami, 1986

Here, Mariachi Jalisco perform the song “La Llorona (The Weeping Woman),” a tune based on the legendary tale of a mother condemned to roam the earth for eternity looking in vain for her children that she drowned in life.

La Llorona
[audio:http://floridamemory.com/fpc/memory/collections/folklife/blog/Mexico.mp3|titles= La Llorona, by Mariachi Jalisco |artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3

“Don’t be misled; we play Southern, but it’s Arab style”

The latest podcast features traditional Arab music performed by Rick and Mark Bateh from Jacksonville. Listen to the Bateh’s explain styles, techniques, and rhythms used in Arab music and demonstrate their skills to the crowd at the 1982 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

“Don’t be misled; we play Southern, but it’s Arab style”
[audio:http://floridamemory.com/fpc/memory/collections/folklife/mp3/podcasts/arab.mp3|titles= "Don't be misled; we play Southern, but it's Arab style" |artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3

More Info: Podcasts Page

For more information about Arab music, see Habib Touma, The Music of the Arabs (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1996).

Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins
[audio:http://floridamemory.com/fpc/memory/collections/folklife/blog/Hard_Time_Killing_Floor_Blues.mp3|titles=Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins|artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3
More Information: Catalog Record

This soulful blues tune is performed here with foreboding intensity by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins at the 1991 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” was originally penned and recorded in 1931 by delta blues legend Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James.

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins performing at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1991

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins performing at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1991

Guitarist John Cephas (1930-2009) and harmonica player Phil Wiggins (1954- ), legends in their own right, were an acoustic blues duo hailing from Washington D.C. The pair were known for their Piedmont blues style, but as you can hear in the audio clip above, they perfectly capture the essence of “Skip” James’ delta blues. If this song sounds familiar to you, it was also performed in the Coen Brother’s film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by musician and actor Chris Thomas King.