WHITE SPRINGS, Fla. Country star
Billy Dean loves
the Florida Folk festival so much he played for free
The festival, the oldest continually running music
gathering of its kind in the United States, was held
during the Memorial Day weekend for the 48th year.
Dean, a Grammy and Country Music Association Award
nominee and winner of a Top Male Vocalist Award from
the Academy of Country Music, grew up in the Florida
panhandle town of Quincy, a time he recalled in his
popular song "Billy the Kid."
Dean wasn't the only nationally known performer to
appear at one of the festival's 15 performance areas,
which are scattered along the Suwannee River banks
under the live oaks at the Stephen Foster State
Culture Center Park in the rural north Florida town of
John McEuen, a
founding member and longtime mainstay of the
COLOR="#003163">Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
COLOR="#003163">Nitty Gritty Dirt Bandwho
went on to a successful solo career, had a minireunion
of sorts with fellow Dirt Band member
COLOR="#003163">Jim Ibbotson, as the two
worked out arrangements of several of the band's
popular hits, including "Dance Little Jean" (
excerpt), "Mister Bojangles" and "Will the
Circle Be Unbroken?" (
HREF="http://www.musicdirect.com/scripts/hurlPNM.exe?/999999999//~ggg-484908/0019795_0119_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt COLOR="#003163">Vassar Clements
excerpt) and teamed with fiddler
COLOR="#003163">Vassar Clements, a member
of the all-star cast on the Dirt Band's 1972 Will
the Circle Be Unbroken? album.
Elliott, a cohort and disciple of the late
also appeared. "We're just thrilled to have him,"
festival coordinator Ken Crawford said before the
event. "He's a living link to history."
History is a good part of what the Florida Folk
Festival is about. Exhibits trace the state's varied
ethnic groups, including a Seminole Indian camp where
tribal members build thatched roof shelters, or
chickees, in a traditional manner still much in use
This year also saw a mainstage jam in tribute to
Tampa blues singer Diamond
Teeth Mary, who died earlier in the year,
and singing from the chief of the Seminole tribe,
It's a family thing for the musicians, too.
COLOR="#003163">Jeannie Fitchen, a Florida
music teacher and singer/songwriter, has been coming
to the festival since she was a preteen 34 years ago.
When her compelling voice, reminiscent of
COLOR="#003163">Joan Baez's, soars over the
festival grounds, people quickly draw near to hear her
songs of the sandhill crane and the big alligator.
Fitchen remembers highlights of past years, including
seeing Florida troubadour
COLOR="#003163">Will McLeanand bluegrass
great Bill Monroe.
While Fitchen still enjoys the music, she allows that
"sometimes I wish we could return to the times when
the festival was simpler, less hectic."
Songwriter and composer Velma
Frye, who has appeared on National Public
Radio's "Prairie Home Companion" and shared stages
with Doc Watson,
Leo Kottke and
Beausoliel, is one
of the many Florida-based musicians who take the
homecoming theme of the Florida Folk festival to heart
and return every year they can.
Blues guitarist Roy
Bookbinder, another who calls Florida home,
not only performs but gets up close and personal with
festival-goers in teaching workshops, as do Fitchen,
Waterbug recording artist Sam
Pacetti and Florida history troubadour
These artists often show up at the river gazebo, a
wooden, open-sided building aside the banks of the
Suwannee, where songs whose subjects range from
alligators to interstates, and from lottery tickets to
wildfires, paint portraits of contemporary concerns of
the Sunshine State.
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose
department oversees the festival, is already planning
for the 50th anniversary by seeking public input on
ideas for the celebration.
"I'm honored to work so closely with so many
Floridians who so passionately support the
preservation of our state's cultural resources," she
said. "We're proud to be the nation's oldest
continuous running state folk festival. It exceeds our
dreams with each new year."
Those who'd like to contribute ideas about how to mark
the historic anniversary may send them to