The Weekly Watch
The Florida Folk Festival began with the music: It was 1953, and Pete Seeger and the Weavers had a big hit with Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Folk music was exploding with acoustic guitar, coffee houses, banjos, beatniks and sing-alongs. Now some 70 years later, the Florida Folk Festival is still held every Memorial Day weekend, and you’re sure to hear plenty of folk music. But the event has broadened to celebrate Florida’s land, people and diverse cultural heritage. In addition to a full schedule of performances, you’ll find plenty to amuse and educate. The festival focuses on traditional crafts — everything from split rail fences to henna tattoos. And the food is not the same-as-everywhere festival food. Look for blue crab burritos, Jamaican patties, shrimp gumbo or Beulah Baptist Church’s chicken and dumplings dinner.
This year's schedule at the link.
So while I'm playing, cutting up, and carrying on, I thought you might enjoy learning about the river, park, and festival in a largely forgotten part of Florida.
FLORIDA: Forgotten, Rural Towns In A Rare Quiet Part Of The State (40 min)
Stephen Foster never came to Florida, nor saw the Suwannee. However it its his composition which became Florida's state song. He led a tragic life writing the nation's biggest hits of the time and dying almost penniless.
Stephen Foster was America's first professional songwriter of note. He was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, and developed musical talent early in his life, while still young beginning to compose in the style of Negro minstrel music of the day. His first hit as a professional songwriter was "Oh! Susanna," which he sold to a publisher for $100 in 1848. In 1849, he began writing songs for the most successful black-faced minstrel troupe of all time, led by E.P. Christy, and from whom the 1960's folk group The New Christy Minstrels took their name. "The Old Folks at Home" (a/k/a "Swanee River") was written for Christy, and during the 1850's, Foster wrote most of his best-known songs, including "Camptown Races" and "My Old Kentucky Home." He married Jane Denny McDowell on July 22, 1850 and they settled in Pittsburgh, having one daughter, Marion. The troubled marriage was one of separations and reconciliations. During one such separation, he wrote "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair," inspired by his estranged wife, and they reconciled after its publication. However, although Foster composed more than 200 songs in his lifetime, many still popular today, copyright laws in music were rarely enforced at the time and he made little money in his short life. By 1857, he was in a creative slump and in such economic straits that he sold all rights to any future songs for just under $2,000. He and his wife soon separated. He moved to New York City, living alone and suffering from acute alcoholism, which only added to his financial problems. Songs of the Civil War being fought at the time did not prove as popular as his previous songs. On January 13, 1864, he died in the charity ward of New York's Bellevue Hospital, being taken there after a protracted fever that had weakened him so much that he had collapsed and hit his head on a washbasin at home. Only two weeks before, he had composed his last great song, "Beautiful Dreamer."
It's perhaps appropriate that America's first great popular songwriter was born on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It was also on that day that two signers of that Declaration, as well as two of America's most revered Presidents, passed on: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
For all his success as a songwriter, Foster was, by at least one account, a man whose life was plagued by misfortune and unhappiness. When he died in early 1864, aged 37, probably of tuberculosis, it was in a third-rate hotel on the Bowery. Separated from his beloved wife and children, and long since lost in alcoholism, he died with only thirty-seven cents in his pocket and these words scribbled in a piece of paper, "dear hearts and gentle friends." Was it the beginning of a letter? The title of a new song? We will never know.
Stephens Collins Foster was an American composer and songwriter who wrote 286 songs spanning a writing career of 20 years. Some of his songs became the favorites of middle class families which were sung by amateur singers when people gathered in their parlors. The “parlor” songs were accompanied by musical instruments such as pianos which were the prized possessions of a few well-to-do households. He also wrote a large number of songs sung by the minstrels while enacting comical skits and variety shows. The music curriculums followed by many schools include some his songs and they are termed as “childhood songs”. Most of his songs seemed to be based on his own experiences in life. The lyrics of his songs were tender and their rhythm was spell-binding. The songs contained his opinion about home, temperament, politics, battles, and life in plantations. His songs are still popular even after more than 150 years since the time they were written. He is considered as the most famous songwriter to have emerged in the nineteenth century. He is probably the most recognized American composer in other parts of the world.
Tour the museum with dioramas in this clip.
The real area attraction to me is the river and it's array of springs...(5 min)
The mirror like nature of the black water and the way the river has been protected make it a joy to paddle. Here's someones 12 minute recap.
Our 2015 paddle on the Suwannee River from White Springs to the Gulf of Mexico. From November 28th - December 13th we paddled our canoe down the Suwannee River, taking our time and stopping to appreciate the sites and springs along the way. Hop in the canoe and join us for a ride down one of America's greatest rivers!
The springs all along the river are beautiful, refreshingly cold, and numerous.
White Sulphur Spring that is the site of the Town of White Springs, has drawn people to the bend in the Suwannee River for centuries. Artifacts from Paleo-Indians and Timucuans are commonly found there, with shell middens and burial mounds close by.
First incorporated as Jackson Springs in 1831 by a group of businessmen who saw the spring and a good site for a ferry as moneymaking opportunities. William B. Hooker (who later became a cattle baron in Tampa), James T. Hooker, James D. Prevatt, Joseph Bryant and John Lee obtained the incorporation papers
White Springs water tower
By 1832 the healing powers of the waters surrounded with rocks encrusted with crystals of sulfur was being celebrated as far away as Philadelphia. CHB Collins established a ferry just up river from the spring and Florida’s first tourist destination was in business.
Bryant Sheffield, who took over the ferry in 1836, built a log hotel and built a log springhouse at Upper Mineral Springs, as it was then known. From there, the resort grew. During the Civil War,
Confederates found refuge from encroaching Union troops in the inland town. The Broward family, including the future governor Florida, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, moved from Fernandina to a plantation outside town and called it Rebel’s Refuge.
Wight and Powell, a prosperous mercantile business in Georgia, bought the spring property known as White Suphur Springs from the Sheffields in 1882 and laid out city lots. They sold to enterprising folks to establish retail stores, suppliers for the Sea Island cotton planters in the surrounding area and services for the burgeoning health and pleasure resort centered on the spring. The settlement incorporated in 1885 as White Springs.
Soon there were large hotels, boarding houses, cotton buyers and a gin, fashionable clothing and hat shops, a college for teachers and all manner of entertainment of the day including skating, lawn tennis and ballroom dancing. Stagecoaches gave way to railroad travel and the automobile replaced that.
The popularity of mineral springs as health resorts faded in the 1930s but by 1950 the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, surrounded by lush formal gardens and later a carillon containing the world’s largest set of tubular bells, which honors the author of the world-renowned song of the Suwannee River, “Old Folks at Home”, continued the tourist trade.
The folk festival has an excellent archive with recordings over the years from a few of the many stages. Additionally here's a partial list of the performers. A few years ago I wrote a piece, about the Florida musicians from the festival who influenced me.
I play with my buddy Lloyd Baldwin. There are a few of the many sets we've played over the decades at the previous link.
Here's one I sing that our friend J U Lee wrote.
Lloyd Baldwin and Friends, they call themselves The Fish Camp Cut Ups, at the 2008 Florida Folk Festival.
So it is Sunday and the festival is coming to a close. We just have one set today, and we'll head home tomorrow. See you next week here at C99. Signing out from the festival...
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