The Florida Folk Festival has been entertaining music lovers for 58 years. Produced by the Florida Park Service, the goal of the festival is to “showcase…the Real Florida.” Since that also happens to be the goal of this blog, I braved heat and humidity to learn more about how the Park Service sees the Sunshine State. The three-day festival was held at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center and State Park in White Springs.
“Crammed” is the word that came to mind as Mr. B. and I studied the schedule of performances. So jam-packed full was it that unless you visited on more than one day, you were going to miss something. Since we visited on Sunday, we were already behind the eight-ball by missing headliners Mel Tillis and Billy Dean. Our intent, though, was to scout some new musicians for the Free Fridays Concert Series and also to check in on a Caribbean vendor we are hoping will do some teriyaki for us at the upcoming Asian festival.
The Folk Festival is an event that further illustrates the great Florida divide between tourist attraction and tradition. As far as the festival is concerned, “folk” applies to both music and to folkways in general, meaning that Cracker culture was also highlighted. This wasn’t the place to hear hard rock or the latest hip-hop or to admire the latest fashion trend. It was country, gospel, blues, bluegrass and banjo all the live-long day along with storytelling, crafts, square dance, roping, fishing, and turkey calls. “Newer cultural communities” were also included, which brought out a Thai fruit carver and Indian dancers.
If you took the festival at face value, “the real Florida” is a place absent from most modern technology or modern concerns. I was struck by the lack of beefy security squads or of giant projection screens or Powerpoint presentations. This is not to say that the festival was quaint, although the emphasis was on the preservation of tradition. Nowhere is this more evident than with music, and the festival was the place to celebrate it.
I was specifically interested in hearing The Mayhaws and the New Florida Favorites. We caught two songs from the former near the end of a 20-minute set and then saw a half hour of the latter. When the heat became too much for me, I sought shelter in the base of the carillon tower, where a gospel singer’s powerful voice bounced off the marble walls. After drinking two Cokes, I was restored enough to reacquaint myself with Stephen Foster, Florida’s non-native adopted son, and to admire an exhibition of luthiers. Floridians take their music and their musical instruments seriously and even non-players could find much to admire in the superb craftsmanship.
The way to really enjoy the festival was to camp at the adjoining campground for a couple of nights. Then, the dizzying schedule made sense. Since we missed much more than we saw, my photos are not comprehensive and only give a general idea of the festival’s scope. A question arises about the slim line between “demonstrator” and “reenactor.” I bring this up because one of the festival’s coordinators had asked me for a list of contacts from which he might mine some festival participants. I gave him a list that included a woman who combs angora hair from rabbits and then weaves it into garments. The coordinator told me this was a reenactor, and yet at the festival I saw men dressed in 19th-century clothing building a split rail fence of a type that might have been used to fence off a herd of 19th-century Cracker cattle. Or perhaps I misunderstood something; there was another caveat about having the skill be handed down generationally. In this case, the angora-weaver might have learned the craft from a neighbor while the fence-builder learned his craft from his grandpaw. However, the Thai fruit carver, whom I wrote about in an article published last fall, learned fruit-carving as part of her traditional upper-class Thai education.
I am still confused. Nevertheless, I enjoyed all of the demonstrations and reenactments, the songs and the square-dancing, the music and the cool of the marble that provided such relief from the clammy, steamy weather.
Florida Folk Festival: *****
I almost didn’t get this one. The woman was turned towards the man and my camera struggled to focus in the dark interior of the carillon tower. Just as I snapped, the woman moved. (I haven’t tried to remove red eye on the man since it adds to his look of disapproval and also because the pupils are so small.)
A sign at the gate prohibiting pets didn’t seem to be enforced. I saw many dogs enjoying the music. I wonder if the pet policy only applied to walk-ins and not to campers.