‘I’m Florida, Need I Say More?’
Now turning 70, a White Springs Festival celebrates the elusive, eclectic music that is Florida Folk.
By Peter B. Gallagher
An attendee at the 70-year-old Florida Folk Festival, May 27-29, may well be confused, not just by the Cracker accent prevalent along these parts of the Suwannee River, but also by the diverse sights and sounds of the nation’s longest continuous state folk festival.
Over here sits a bluesman rhyming a red rooster, over there a cowboy is crooning ’bout his blue tick hound herding cattle. You might turn a corner and see a woman in a granny dress singing “Shady Grove (My Little Love)” or a tall, thin backwoods banjo player picking a furious “Salt Creek.” A gospel choir, finger-style guitarists, sacred steel players, piano mavens playing Joplin, electric bass breaks complete with applause, bluegrass jams in the campground, the tallest tower on this 240-mile river chiming Stephen Foster songs all day.
You walk by a lady with a kerchief cap stirring a pot of what the crackers call chicken perlu—they love French terms! There are even Florida folksingers singing Don Grooms’ song about Michiganders: “They got their old CDs and their color TVs, every third car on the road, is a man from Michigan in a gol-durn Winnebago!”
Truth is, music drives this festival, through blacksmiths and quilters and tight-rope walkers and surfers, dollmakers, walking-stick carvers and Seminole longshirts. Florida Folk Music is the engineer of this train. But what exactly is Florida folk music?
The late Bobby Hicks from Tampa, perhaps the greatest Florida Folk songwriter, had the best answer of all. In his gruff biker voice, he oft declared: “Florida Folk Music? I know it when I see it.”
The alligator stew of folks who compose and perform original Florida songs is celebrated annually at the Florida Folk Festival, held on the hallowed grounds of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park every Memorial Day weekend. (The pandemic interrupted the festival, which was held virtually in 2021.)
In addition to a rich assortment of Florida crafts, food, dance performances and storytelling, more than 300 featured musical acts on more than a dozen stages, make this a mecca for Florida songsmiths and folk music fans. Thousands make the annual pilgrimage to tiny White Springs to commune with each other.
Prolific songwriter Stephen Collins Foster was the first name associated with Florida music. In 1851, Foster edited his original words about North Carolina’s Peedee River into the international classic, “Old Folks at Home,” which describes a fictional Florida plantation “way down upon the Swanee River.”
Although lore has it that Foster never laid eyes on the river he wrote about, in fact, Foster and his wife cruised the Suwannee by riverboat during their honeymoon that year. They stopped at a café in Ellaville—where the river is wide and the boat could turn around—and ate lunch; the owner noted the visit in a letter handed down through generations and now in the possession of James Cornett, CEO of the nearby Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak.
In 1935, “Old Folks” became Florida’s state song. The lyrics were penned in Black minstrel dialect, but in 2008, the Legislature revised the song without the offensive language.
Begun by area socialites in 1952, the Florida Folk Festival came to hold the only real certification for state folk singer/songwriters.
“You just weren’t considered Florida folk unless you paid your dues at White Springs,” explains Dale Crider, a Kentucky-born wildlife biologist, environmentalist and songwriter who lives along Gainesville’s Lake Pithlachoco and began performing at the festival in the 1960s.
“Far as we knew, we were the main Florida folksingers and songwriters in the state.”
That left out Jimmy Buffett, arguably the state’s most famous folksinger, and hundreds of other songwriters and singers of all ethnicities across the Sunshine State. The festival’s “credentials,” however, were held in the tight grip of the late “Cousin” Thelma Boltin, an iron-fisted folklorist who directed the festival from 1954 to 1965 and remained influential into the late 1980s. During the performances, clad in sunbonnet and pioneer-style dress, Boltin was always on the main stage, watching, critiquing and protecting an event she defined according to her own traditional God-fearing North Florida culture. The talent lineup until the mid-1970s was almost exclusively from that region. It was once “Woodstock white,” according to Peggy Bulger, who was hired as Florida’s first state Folklorist and Administrator of the new Florida Folklife Program in 1976. “Thelma decided who was and who was not allowed on stage. I was hired to bring more diversity into the program,” Bulgur says.
Boltin’s choices had left out many performers who have become valuable stitches on the Florida folk quilt. Unlike Texas, which promotes a sound immediately marketable as Texas music, Florida’s folk music is a changeling, flitting all over the map. So many transplants and cultures make up modern Florida that the nature and definition of Florida folk can’t be pinned down. As Ken Crawford, one of the festival directors who succeeded Boltin, says: “In Florida, there are Chicago-style blues bands playing Florida folk songs. There are reggae bands playing it. And everybody has their own idea what Florida music is or isn’t.”
Over the next decades, with Bulger treading softly but firmly in the background—allowing Boltin and her able assistant, Barbara Beauchamp, to ease off the old values—the festival began to change. Bulger traveled the nooks and crannies of the state, creating an outstanding compendium of folk talent and culture. Diversity blossomed.
In 1978 bluesman Blind Johnny Brown, retired to St. Petersburg after traveling the state performing and writing songs as a slide guitarist with Jimmy Reed in the ’40s and ’50s, was welcomed to the main stage to sing “Nobody Likes Mexico Like I Do.” Says Bulger, who went on to serve as director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress from 1999 to 2011, “I knew the diversity was working when Ida Goodson and Diamond Teeth Mary [both Black blues artists] took the stage together.” The crowd cheered.
Cousin Thelma could not help scoffing at such change. She had strong opinions not only about folk songs but about the singers. One of the state’s most legendary folksingers, the late Will McLean, became her nemesis. McLean and troubadours Gamble Rogers, Jim Ballew and Don Grooms were respected primary progenitors of today’s contemporary real Florida Folk sound. An often homeless, hard-drinking man who wrote beautiful songs, McLean defined Florida folk music, and Thelma knew it.
The Chipley-born McLean called himself “The Black Hat Troubadour” and roamed the state, in 1963 performing at Carnegie Hall. McLean’s songs borrowed from the traditional Northeastern folk idiom but were roughed up with honest Florida grit.
“Times at night I get to thinking, And the shivers cold my spine,” he sings in his classic “Wild Hog,” a precious string of words that Bobby Hicks declared “the finest single line ever written in a Florida folk song.” Hicks was too humble to nominate his own finest line:
“Well they cut down the trees and the mangrove keys, then they killed off the coral and the old manatee and they put parkin’ lots where the beach used to be and it’s damn sure killin’ me, it’s killin’ you and me.”
Considering the lifestyle McLean favored, it is an irony of considerable hilarity that the Dade City spring festival named after him strongly disallowed alcohol or raucous carrying-on. “Will wouldn’t be allowed to attend his own festival,” guitarist Raiford Starke once said to me, laughing. “I can just see him and Don Grooms and [folk-singing Seminole Chief] James Billie sipping jasmine tea and whispering around the campfire.” The years have softened those rules.
McLean’s stature as the “Father of Florida Folk” forced Boltin to look the other way regarding his constant rule-bending. McLean continually brought his new “discoveries” onto the festival stage, unannounced, giving up his own stage time to audition new talent.
Cousin Thelma could only look on disapprovingly. At one of the festival’s traditional Sunday morning group discussions, self-righteous performers, one after the other, expressed complaints and disgust with raucous Black legend 81-year-old Diamond Teeth Mary McClain and her King Snake Blues Band stomping all over the Saturday-night stage. Gamble Rogers rose to put the denouncers down forever.
In the quiet voice of the Southern gentleman that he was, he went to the Bible: “Would you deny,” he lectured. “Would you deny your brother a seat at the table?”
The whole hillside grew quiet and then resounded with loud applause. The Florida Folk Festival was never the same. Why, with the waters broken, even Cousin Thelma relented, becoming best of friends with Diamond Tooth Mary; they sang Foster’s songs together, in his original minstrel dialect, and sat on the main stage together, still critiquing, until Thelma died in 1992.
Lake Wales folksingers Frank and Ann Thomas continued McLean’s work by regularly introducing new talent at the festival. They served as mentors to a wide variety of folk musicians who made regular pilgrimages to their outback Rattlesnake Road “Cracker Palace” home. The Thomases hosted the state’s first folk music radio show in the late 1980s, taped at their home. Any picker with a song and story was qualified to stop by. They were famously known to give songwriting assignments to young folkies who would return weeks later with their homework.
Other directors have continued to expand the festival’s musical content and reach. Now produced and coordinated by the Florida Park Service, the festival is more inclusive and eclectic than ever. And it’s still the best gathering anywhere to hear and enjoy Florida folk music—the real thing.
I’m talking about Whitey Markle’s boiled peanut pie. Raiford Starke’s half-breed “Girl from Immokalee,” E.T. Morris’s “Hurricane Blow,” Dale Crider’s red-wolf howl, the frailing banjo of Valerie Wisecracker’s “Mouse That Et Orlando,” Hollywood Dave’s sunken Corvair, Bob Patterson’s river lullabies, and Mike Loren’s Celtic princess in her cowgirl dress.
Someone send James Hawkins a lifeline before he’s “Swept Away.” Boomslang is somewhere eating roadkill at the Flamingo Café. There’re buzzards dancin’ in Chief Billie’s mind and the Ashley Gang is still doin’ time. Kelly Green’s been down with the Frank Thomas blues. J. Robert’s out in the mangroves with his walkin’ shoes. Del Suggs’s wooden boat is travelin’ far offshore when Bobby Hicks thunders, “Need I say more?”
“I’m Spaniard and I’m Frenchman, and I’m British and I’m Indian,” Hicks continues. “I’m forest, I’m swampland, opportunities for all men/Proud as can be when I roar/I’m Florida, need I say more? I’m Florida, need I say more!”
Peter B. Gallagher is a Florida journalist and songwriter who lives in St. Petersburg. He hosts the Florida Folk Show on WTMB heard worldwide on www.radiostpete.com and a podcast at www.floridafolkshow.com, featuring his vast collection of stories, photographs, videos and artifacts.
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