Vassar Clements, Ramblin' Jack Elliott Celebrate All Things Floridian

Nation's longest continually running folk festival features music plus.

WHITE SPRINGS, Fla. — Country star

Billy Dean loves

the Florida Folk festival so much he played for free

this year.

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

White Springs.

John McEuen, a

founding member and longtime mainstay of the

COLOR="#003163">Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who

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" (

HREF="http://www.musicdirect.com/scripts/hurlPNM.exe?/999999999//~bb-484908/0056166_0101_00_0002.ra">RealAudio

excerpt), "Mister Bojangles" and "Will the

Circle Be Unbroken?" (

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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.

Ramblin' Jack

Elliott, a cohort and disciple of the late

Woody Guthrie,

also appeared. "We're just thrilled to have him,"

festival coordinator Ken Crawford said before the

event. "He's a living link to history."

Time Tells

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

today.

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,

Jim Billie.

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 McLean and 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

Doug Gauss.

Looking Ahead

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

kcrawford@mail.dos.state.fl.us.