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

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Intermission

Part 2

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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

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“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”

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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

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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.

The Music of the Civil War

Life as a soldier during the Civil War was rough business, and we’re not just talking about the fighting. Long marches, primitive camp facilities, disease, and unreliable supply chains were realities of life for the men serving on both sides of this conflict.

Music was one way of breaking up the monotony. Soldiers sang songs in camp to pass the time, and on marches to keep in step. Most of these songs were designed to commend either the Confederate or Union side, although in some cases the same tune was sung on both sides, just with different words. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” is one example; it has both a Union and Confederate version.

Young re-enactors serve as drummers at the Olustee Battlefield in Baker County (1994).

Young re-enactors serve as drummers at the Olustee Battlefield in Baker County (1994).

Here we present a small selection of recordings of famous Civil War songs sung over the years by the 97th Regimental String Band at the Florida Folk Festival, held annually at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center at White Springs. The 97th Regimental String Band uses authentic instruments and accurate lyrics to recreate as closely as possible the musical experiences of the soldiers who were singing these songs 150 years ago. This is only a selection; many more songs are available through our Audio page and on Florida Memory Radio.

NOTE: The lyrics in these songs sometimes vary depending on the performer and the context of the performance; we’ve selected lyrics for this post based on the ones used in the sound recordings.

The Bonnie Blue Flag


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We are a band of brothers
And native to the soil,
Fighting for our liberty
With treasure, blood, and toil;
And when our rights were threatened,
The cry rose near and far–
“Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star!”

CHORUS:
Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.

As long as the Union
Was faithful to her trust,
Like friends and like brethren
Both kind were we and just;
But now, when Northern treachery
Attempts our rights to mar,
We hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.
CHORUS

First gallant South Carolina
Nobly made the stand,
Then came Alabama,
Who took her by the hand.
Next quickly Mississippi,
Georgia and Florida
All raised on high the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.
CHORUS

Ye men of valor, gather round
The banner of the right;
For Texas and fair Louisiana
Join us in our fight.
And Davis, our great president,
And Stephens, statesmen rare;
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.
CHORUS

And here’s to brave Virginia–
The Old Dominion State–
Who with the young Confederacy
At length has linked her fate;
Impelled by her example,
Now other states prepare
To hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.
CHORUS

Then cheer, boys, cheer;
Raise the joyous shout,
For Arkansas and North Carolina
Now have both gone out;
And let another rousing cheer
For Tennessee be given,
The single star of the Bonnie Blue Flag
Has grown to be eleven! 
CHORUS

Then here’s to our Confederacy,
Strong we are and brave;
Like patriots of old we’ll fight
Our heritage to save.
And rather than submit to shame,
To die we would prefer;
So cheer for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.
CHORUS

The Battle Cry of Freedom (Union Version)


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Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
We’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom,
We will rally from the hillside,
We’ll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.

CHORUS:
The Union forever,
Hurrah! boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor,
And up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys,
Rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.

We are springing to the call
For 300,000 more,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;
And we’ll fill our vacant ranks 
Of our brothers gone before,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.
CHORUS

We will welcome to our number
The loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;
And although he may be poor,
He shall never be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.
CHORUS

So we’re springing to the call
From the East and from the West,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;
And we’ll hurl the rebel crew
From the land that we love the best,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.
CHORUS

Goober Peas

Sitting by the Roadside on a summer’s day, chatting with my messmates passing time away,
Lying in the shadow underneath the trees, Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!

When a horseman passes, the soldiers have a rule, to cry out at their loudest “Mister here’s your mule.”
But another pleasure enchantinger than these, is wearing out your grinders, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!

Just before the battle the general hears a row, He says the Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now,
He turns around in wonder, and what do you think he sees, The Georgia Militia, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!

I think my song has lasted almost long enough. The subject’s interesting, but rhymes are mighty rough.
I wish this war was over – when free from rags and fleas, We’d kiss our wives and sweethearts and gobble goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!