Ralph Stanley Dies at 89

Banjo player and vocalist Ralph Stanley was a master of what he described as the “old-time mountain style” found in the ridges and valleys of his home on the Virginia-Kentucky border.  His high clarion tenor was iconic in traditional mountain music and modern bluegrass alike.  He died at his home in Sandy Ridge, Virginia on Thursday at the age of 89.

Stanley Brothers and Clinch Mountain Boys performing at the 1959 Florida Folk Festival- White Springs, Florida

Ralph Stanley (banjo) with Carter Stanley (guitar) at the 1959 Florida Folk Festival

Stanley was born in Dickenson County, located in Southwest Virginia, on February 25, 1927, absorbing the sentimental folk songs of the Carter Family right along with the doleful hymns of the Primitive Baptist Universalist congregation he grew up with.  After receiving his first banjo as a teenager, his mother taught him the claw-hammer style she had learned in her youth.  By the age of 19, Stanley had formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother, Carter, which remained active for two decades.

During that time, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys found success arranging blues, ballads, hymns and breakdowns to feature their fraternally tight vocal harmonies and expressive musicianship in a style that, while often associated with bluegrass, featured little of the bombastic virtuosity and jazz-inflected melodies of popular bluegrass groups like Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys.

On November 8, 1958, nearing the height of their popularity, the Stanley Brothers headlined the Suwannee River Jamboree, a weekly radio program in Live Oak, Florida.  Their performance of Stanley’s original composition “Gonna Paint the Town” from a half-hour segment of the program syndicated to nearby radio stations can be found in the Florida Folklife Collection (S1576, T85-66):

After his brother’s death in 1966, Stanley began to focus more on the traditional ballads of his Appalachian home, shying further away from any bluegrass leanings his brother had.  His contributions to country music were recognized over the course of his career with inductions into both the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and the Grand Ole Opry, an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University, Congressional recognition in the form of the Living Legend Award and a National Medal of Arts, as well as a Grammy Award for his performance of “O Death” in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“Dr. Ralph,” as he was known in his later years, never wavered in his commitment to the penetrating and powerfully unpretentious roots of old-time mountain music, thus insuring his place in the pantheon of American roots music.

Spirits of Turpentine

Once Florida’s largest industry, and one of the oldest industries in the United States, turpentine was a ubiquitous ingredient in American household products including paints, medicines, hair spray, and cosmetics, just to name a few. The industry was a driving force behind the development of port cities Jacksonville and Pensacola.

Chipping a tree to make turpentine, 1930s

Chipping a tree to make turpentine, 1930s

Oleoresin, better known to turpentiners as pine resin, is a natural byproduct of certain types of pine trees that at one time proliferated in North Florida. This pine resin was extracted from the trees by laborers (mostly African-American males) and then distilled to give us turpentine or “spirit of turpentine.”

Dip testing the gum, Lake City, 1948

Dip testing the gum, Lake City, 1948

Yet, before these modern uses of distilled pine resin, it was originally used for sealing wooden ships to protect against leaks, earning the name “naval stores.” The first known European use of naval stores in Florida was in the sixteenth century by Spanish explorers, but production of the resin did not become a fruitful trade in Florida until the early 1800s.

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Temari

Temari is the traditional Japanese art of decorating spheres by winding and lacing colored threads in intricate patterns around a core ball. These Temari were made by master folk artist Kazuko Law and her daughter Chieri Esposito. They were photographed in 1985 in Gulf Breeze, Florida.

Temari made by Chieri Esposito and Kazuko Law: Gulf Breeze, Florida (April 1985)

Temari made by Chieri Esposito and Kazuko Law: Gulf Breeze, Florida (April 1985)

Temari made by Chieri Esposito and Kazuko Law: Gulf Breeze, Florida (April 1985)

Temari made by Chieri Esposito and Kazuko Law: Gulf Breeze, Florida (April 1985)

Temari made by Chieri Esposito and Kazuko Law: Gulf Breeze, Florida (April 1985)

Happy Birthday Cousin Thelma (August 31, 1904)

Thelma Boltin at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida (1960)

Thelma Ann Boltin, affectionately known as “Cousin” Thelma, was a storyteller, emcee, teacher and long-time director of the Florida Folk Festival. Her dedication to sharing Florida’s folk traditions brought diverse groups of artists to the festival each year, and established the festival’s reputation for celebrating unique and varied cultures.

Born in South Carolina, she was raised in Gainesville and taught theater in schools and community centers. Here’s a clip of Cousin Thelma discussing the history of the Florida Folk Festival and various folk tales.

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More Info: Catalog Record

Wakulla Springs Boat Tours Podcast

“Wakulla Springs Boat Tours Podcast”

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Tour boat guide Wilbert Gavin: Wakulla Springs, Florida

Tour boat guide Wilbert Gavin: Wakulla Springs, Florida

Alligators, snakes, rare birds and Native exoticism are all pinnacles of Florida’s tourism industry. Wakulla Springs State Park offers visitors the chance to experience all of these things and more under the guidance of clever and knowledgeable guides. In this month’s podcast we’ll examine the oral traditions of the Wakulla Springs boat drivers.

Sandgren family enjoys a glass bottom boats: Wakulla Springs, Florida (1946)

Sandgren family enjoys a glass bottom boats: Wakulla Springs, Florida (1946)

Glass-bottom boat tours are certainly not exclusive to Wakulla Springs. They have been a long-standing attraction in Silver Springs, Homosassa Springs and Rainbow Springs, among others. Boat tours in Wakulla Springs date back to the late 1800s. Right up through recent history, descendents of the first boatmen of the Springs have followed in the footsteps of their forefathers, and their chants, jokes and stories have been passed down through the generations.

Henry the pole-vaulting fish at Wakulla Springs: Wakulla Springs, Florida

Henry the pole-vaulting fish at Wakulla Springs: Wakulla Springs, Florida

Now keep your hands and arms inside the boat, and enjoy the mysterious waters of Wakulla Springs!

 

Happy Birthday Mary Smith McClain (August 27, 1902)

“St. Louis Blues”

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More Info: Catalog Record, Where the Palm Trees Shake at Night: Blues Music from the Florida Folklife Collection

“Give A Poor Dog A Bone”

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Mary Smith McClain, also known as “Diamond Teeth” Mary for the jewels she once had embedded in her teeth, or “Walking Mary” for her notorious renditions of the “Walking Blues,” was a blues and gospel singer. Born in West Virginia, she began her singing career at the age of 13 performing in medicine shows as well as alongside the likes of her half-sister Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. In 1960, she settled in Manatee County, Florida, married her husband Clifford, and became a devoted gospel singer.

Mary McClain singing gospel: White Springs, Florida (1983)

Mary McClain singing gospel: White Springs, Florida (1983)

Diamond Teeth Mary was rediscovered by folklorist Steven Zeitlin in the 1980s, and performed regularly at the Florida Folk Festival from 1981 until her death in 2000. Her renewed fame brought additional performances across the United States and Europe, including the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. She received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1986.

 

Keith Brown – “Judge Harsh Blues”

The Memphis-born bluesman Keith Brown lays down an excellent rendition of Furry Lewis’s “Judge Harsh Blues” at the 2000 Florida Folk Festival.

Earlier that year, Brown held residency at the Bamboo House in Lake Worth, and recorded his debut album Got to Keep Movin’. In addition to his music career, Keith Brown has portrayed blues legends on film, including Son House in Stop Breakin’ Down and Skip James in The Soul of a Man.

“Judge Harsh Blues”

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Miami-Dade Folklife Survey Podcast

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Gynin playing conga drum during Jamaican Independence Day festival: Miami, Florida

Eddie Massena from Rasta Samba Gynin playing conga drum during Jamaican Independence Day festival: Miami, Florida (1985)

As part of their research, the Florida Folklife Program selects and surveys a particular region or tradition. The Dade Folk Arts Survey was conducted from 1985-1986 by folklorists Tina Bucuvalas, Nancy Nusz and Laurie Sommers with the goal of finding folk artists to bring to the 34th annual Florida Folk Festival. Many of the recordings found in the collection are the result of fieldwork conducted by folklorists. Their findings are extensively documented through field notes, sound recordings, photographs and video.

Manolo Franco playing Venezuelan harp during a rehearsal: Miami, Florida (1985)

Manolo Franco playing Venezuelan harp during a rehearsal: Miami, Florida (1985)

This podcast contains a sampling of recordings from the Miami-Dade region as found in the Dade Folk Arts Survey.  While Latin American, Haitian and Jewish cultures were most prominently represented, the survey also covered a wide range of traditions, including shoe rag popping, Middle Eastern music, Jamaican stories and dance, and Irish fiddling.

Klezmer musician Jaime Bronsztein performing at the Traditions Festival: Miami, Florida (1986)

Klezmer musician Jaime Bronsztein performing at the Traditions Festival: Miami, Florida (1986)

We hope you enjoy the variety of traditions captured in the Dade Folk Arts Survey, and look forward to sharing more fieldwork from the Florida Folklife Collection in the future.

More Info: Podcast with Transcript

Abner Jay

Having worked in traveling medicine shows and vaudeville revues since the age of five, Abner Jay (1921-1993) rightly described himself as the “last working Southern black minstrel.”

As a solo performer, this one-man-band played banjo, bones (which he describes during the introduction to “Rattle These Bones”), harmonica, and percussion while singing traditional field songs, Pentecostal hymns, and minstrel tunes alongside eccentric original material. Abner Jay traveled down the Suwannee to White Springs from his riverside home in Georgia for the 1977 Florida Folk Festival, and gave the audience a memorable history lesson on American music.
 
“Hambone”

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“Rattle These Bones”

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Banjoist and bones player Abner Jay performs at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs (1977)

Banjoist and bones player Abner Jay performs at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs (1977)